WWE Play by Play announcer Michael Cole joined Dave Lagreca and Doug Mortman on Busted Open to talk about Wrestlemania 29. You can hear Busted Open on Sirius 92, XM 208, and on SportsZone on the app.
On his start and his rise in WWE
I got off on the wrong foot here in WWE for a bunch of different circumstances. Number one, I came from CBS News, so I came from outside the business. And this is back in 1997 where it’s still the ‘good ol boy’ network, where if you weren’t brought up and didn’t pay your dues in the wrestling industry you had no business being here. Jim Ross is a guy who dedicated 30 years of his life to this business. He started as a referee, building rings and morphed his way into becoming an announcer and he had paid his dues, as most of the guys had. So I came in in 1997 and I was first employee that was ever hired by the company that was an announcer. I came from CBS Radio. I had been a wrestling fan but I had never been involved in it in any aspect. So I come right out of the blue and start doing shows on WWE. So there was immediately a backlash from the true hardcore fan. ‘Who is this guy? How can he be talking about a product that I’ve watched for 25 years; I’ve never heard of him. He’s not from the business. He’s not from the industry.’ Then I wasn’t even able to get my feet wet and pay my dues here before Jim got sick with his bout of Bells Palsy. So when Jim got sick, all of a sudden, now I had been in the company for a year and they throw me now onto Monday Night Raw and PPVs and I was clueless. I had done sports before, so I knew how to go out and call action, but this business isn’t just about calling action. It’s about telling stories. It’s about understanding the psychology and that was all foreign to me. So for four or five months I’m trying to fill the shoes of this legend who had been sick and I was thrown into that spot so there was a horrible backlash at that point. Rightfully so because I wasn’t ready for that spot. I shouldn’t have been in it. And then third, Vince Russo at the time who was our writer decides that this is great, let’s make JR the bad guy; let’s make him the heel and have him attack Michael Cole’s character.
It obviously turned out bad because I ended up being the bad guy because the perception was both within the storyline and in real life is that ‘here’s this young, punk kid coming out of the news world to replace the guy that I grew up with.’ It would be like some guy from a local news station stepping in to replace Walter Cronkite on the news. I had all these things against me and when JR came back fans were like, ‘thank god, this Cole guy sucks, he shouldn’t be here,’ and I stuck it out. I had seen so many things in my life covering news from wars and so many horrible things that I couldn’t let this stuff affect me. I had a wife and family and that’s who I loved and who I cared about and this other stuff was like, ‘whatever, I’m not going to let these people affect me,’ and I continued to move on and I went to do Smackdown and I did that show for 10 years, which was, to me, an incredible run, and finally in 2008 got drafted to Raw and the rest is history. I don’t have any regrets at all. I thought and I still think that I earned that role. People still to this day can’t stand me for replacing Jim Ross, and they think that JR and I have a terrible relationship because of the storylines that we’ve done, but we don’t. Jim and I are actually real close and we do have a great relationship and Jim’s been a great mentor to me and here we are today.
On the pressure during the Monday night wars
There was a ton of pressure. I was in over my head, and I’ll be the first to admit that. I had been in warzones around the world and never felt the type of pressure that I felt in those few months leading up. Then I had to call Wrestlemania on top of it all, except for the main event, which we brought Jim back for, but it was an extraordinary amount of pressure which I wasn’t ready for. But I always try to look at things from a positive standpoint; that really prepared me for what was coming over the next few years here in WWE and really becoming the voice of Smackdown and becoming the solid guy on that show and moving on to Raw and where I am today.
On dealing with the multitudes of different fans
This day and age people don’t understand the amount of pressure that’s on us as commentators to serve so many masters. First off there’s the hardcore fans, like you guys are, who have been watching for 20 or 30 years who want their old school wrestling. They want you to call a wrestling match; they want you to call every single hold, so you’ve got to please that. You’ve got to try to do your best. You also have to please your kids who are 50% of your audience and your women who are a large part of our audience too, so you’re talking about different stories when it comes to those demographics. We’re obviously in a PG era now, so you can’t get away with a lot of things you could get away with 15 years ago. The other thing is we’re inundated with social media and I get tweet constantly during the show; ‘hey Cole, shut the heck up,’ ‘stop with the twitter, stop with this and that.’ Our company wants to be in the fore front of social media. That’s our company’s goal and our objective. I have to do that, I work for WWE; I need to do what they want me to do. Does it get to be too much sometimes? Yeah, of course it does. I think we do a lot of things in excess, but that’s what we want. So when I’m talking about what’s trending worldwide or when I’m talking about what somebody said on their Twitter feed earlier today, I know guys like you who want your wrestling are probably saying, ‘geez Cole, shut the hell up, enough already.’ But then there’s kids at home going, ‘oh my god, I’m going to follow Vince McMahon on Twitter, this is an exciting day.’ So you’re trying to please so many masters and you’re never going to please everybody. So all you can do is try to do the best you can, try to be entertaining, try to tell a good story, try to explain to your audience what’s going on and on top of all this, especially this time of year, we have such a new audience especially when you’ve got a guy like Rock, who’s the biggest movie star in the world right now and he’s got the number one movie in GI Joe, you have a lot of new audience members watching this show every week now because of guys like The Rock or because of Undertaker’s back or because Brock Lesnar the MMA crowd may come in, so now you’ve got to try to explain what’s going on in our soap opera every week to fans who aren’t watching on a weekly basis. We have to do it in ways that don’t insult guys like you who watch every week and know the stories and background of these guys. It’s a terribly difficult job, but I love it. The challenge is amazing and the criticism is great because I learn a lot of times from the criticism. I’ll read my Twitter feed and a lot of the fans out there have great suggestions and great ideas that I’ll try to bring into the show the following week.
On calling the Raw of Jerry Lawler’s heart attack and turning face
First and foremost, Jerry and I are great friends. We’re real close. Jerry and I have known each other for 16 years now and people may not remember but when Smackdown went on the air Jerry and I were its first team for a couple of years. We worked together every week, plus I worked with Jerry when JR was sick. So I worked with Jerry for years and years, I had his first Wrestlemania match, but what people remember about our relationship up to the point of the heart attack was the fact that I was a bad guy and he was a good guy and I disrespected his dead mother in the ring and I dragged up stuff about his family’s past and all part of the angle, which by the way was all Jerry’s idea, he signed off on it, but that’s what they remember. So 90% of our audience thought we hated each other. Which I guess means we’re doing a great job. But Jerry and I were real real close. The night that it happened in Montreal, I’ll take you through the story, Jerry had a match, which is neither here nor there, and he came back to commentary and we were calling, I can’t even remember what the match was at this point because everything is a blur, but I do remember, Jerry and I don’t look at each other when we do the show, I have a monitor to my right which I watch and Jerry has a monitor to the left which he watches, the only time we ever really look at each other is when we have an on-camera or something like that, so in the middle of this match I heard Jerry snoring and I thought he was doing like I used to do when I was a heel, especially back in the NXT days, I thought he was making fun of the match in the ring and I thought he was snoring because the match was boring. So I chuckled because I thought that’s what he was doing and then I looked over to Jerry to my left and Jerry was laying down on the table, his head was down, and he was literally snoring. At that point I thought this obviously isn’t good, he looked blue. So I jumped up, first thing I did and I’ll never forget this is I hit my mute switch on my box because I was screaming for the doctor. Luckily we had Doc Sampson at ringside. So I’m screaming for the doctor, ‘Doc, doc, Jerry needs you,’ and I hit the mute switch I think out of instinct but I’ll never forget, I remember doing it because I knew something serious was happening and I knew that his family watches the product and I didn’t want them to know at that point what was going on because I thought that if it was me I wouldn’t want my wife or anybody in my family to learn about what was happening from live television. So I hit the mute switch and Jerry at that point I grabbed him to try to hold him up and then he fell out of his chair and then the doctor luckily was there. At that point I just went into instinct mode and I just started calling the match that was going on in the ring and didn’t reference anything that was going on. Then obviously we went to commercial break and during the break they hauled Jerry off in a stretcher and all that. So I’m down at ringside and I’ve got to do the rest of the show for an hour, I had no idea what’s going on. I’ve got my producers and Triple H and others telling me and giving me updates in my headset which I would come back on the air and say, ‘hey, this is the latest we heard,’ and so on and so forth and then at about 10:30 eastern, about a half hour before we went off the air, I remember somebody came in my headset, I can’t remember who it was, and they said, ‘Michael, you need to prepare for the worst.’ I’m like, ‘ok,’ and they said, ‘you need to be prepared to deliver the news.’ So at that point I knew what they were talking about obviously.
So now we had stopped doing commentary out of respect to Jerry, so now I’m sitting out there with 18,000 people surrounding us and millions at home, no one knowing what’s going on, and I didn’t either, and now I’m sitting there going, ‘ok, now how am I going to deliver this news to millions of people around the world’ and ‘what am I going to say’ and how am I going to say it and how am I going to keep myself composed, and all that is running through my head and then almost like it was scripted, and I hate saying that because of the business we’re in because it wasn’t obviously, but when we went off the air on Raw we had got an update that Jerry’s heart started beating on its own and I was able to deliver that news going off the air and that was such an emotion moment.
I remember after we went off the air, I went to the back, Jerry had already gone to the hospital, I went back to the locker room and called my wife and I said, ‘did you what’s going on?’ And she’s like, ‘oh my god, I did,’ and at that point I broke down because I think it all just hit me there. I think it’s the news background. I think its ones of those things, you’re trained. I have seen a lot of atrocities in my life over the years in Africa and Bosnia and places like that and I think you’re just trained, but this obviously different because it’s a real good friend of yours that it happened to on live television and I realized that I had a service and that was to update the fans what was going on with Jerry. Then at that point, we thought he was going to pull through and obviously he did, thank god, and now he’s still a pain my ass like he is every other week, but it was just an awful time.
I remember on Wednesday, two days after it happened, I was actually in the gym at my home in Texas and I got a phone call from Jerry’s girlfriend, Lauren, and she said, ‘Michael, I’ve got somebody who wants to talk to you,’ and it was King. I was like, ‘Holy cow, King, how the hell are you calling me two days after you basically died on national television?’ I guess he had been reading some of the press and stuff and he said, ‘Michael, I’m so sorry.’ I asked why? He goes, ‘well, I killed your heel heat.’ So I guess he had watched stuff that was said and everything else. So after that I became baby face. I think it was the right time, the heel run had run its course, I think it went on much longer than it should have. So what had happened was the company collectively said, ‘if we’re going to turn you this is the time to do it.’ Since JR had been taken off Raw and I became a heel, the one thing I thought the company was missing was that straight guy who was able to deliver the show the way that it needed to be delivered, like the Jim Ross and the Gordon Solie’s, Gorilla’s, they didn’t have that voice of reason in the booth. This was the perfect opportunity to allow them to do that and as a company we collectively said, let’s run with it, and we did. It’s been fairly successful. I still have a lot of detractors out there, a lot, but it’s getting a little bit better.
It was weird too because, I hate that it happened under these circumstances, because I really would have liked to have that face turn and done something like save somebody in a match or one of those cool things you always dream of. This is quite the way I wanted the face turn to happen, but I’m also glad it happened this way because I think it added some legitimacy to what I do. But it was cool to actually get tweets and messages of support from fans when for 15 years 90% of what you receive is ‘you suck’, ‘I hate you’, ‘you’re the worst ever’, and you just don’t respond to that stuff, you just become callous to it, it’s just like, ‘ok, they don’t like me’. But I’m still here and I’m still on the air.
On his favorite announcing combination/preferences
From an ego standpoint, I take pride in the fact that I’m able to do all of it. We don’t get a chance to toot our own horns a lot but from an ego standpoint, and you have to have an ego to be in this business or any business. You have to have confidence. I take pride that I can do it all. One of the things that I’ve said about my career is that, love me or hate me, the one thing that I’ve been able to do that I don’t think anybody would take umbrage with is the fact that I have been able to work with anybody they’ve given me. When I was on Smackdown, I worked with Jerry Lawler, I worked with Tazz, I worked with Mick Foley, I worked with Jonathan Coachman, I worked with JBL, I worked with Paul Heyman, I’ve worked with JR, I’ve worked with Josh Matthews, I’ve worked with Todd Grisham, Matt Striker, I’ve worked with everybody and I’ve been able to pull it off. So I take pride in that.
3 man booth over 2 man booth? It depends who I’m working with. I love the three man booth with Jerry and John. JBL and The King. Love it. Then I’m really able to be that straight on host and direct the traffic. John’s your heel, King’s your baby face and I’m able to be that guy that delivers the information which is the role that I cherish because I think I do that well.
2 man booth, I love working with King and I love working with John. So any combination of those right now is preferable to me. I think the 3 man booth works a little bit better on Smackdown than it does on Raw because Smackdown is a show where there’s not as much social media involvement, the matches are much longer. Raw you get three or four minute matches and social media so it’s a little easier to navigate a two man booth on Raw with all the stuff you have to get in as opposed to Smackdown. I think that out of all the partners I’ve worked with I think that Jerry Lawler and JBL, either together or separately, have been my favorites.
On 3 Hour Raw’s
I was actually excited initially and then when I sat through it for about two months I was like, ‘oh my god.’ The worst thing is, and it’s nothing to do with the guys in the ring, because they’re busting their humps every single time, it’s the energy level. It’s really, really difficult. Your mind really starts to wander. You get past 10 o’clock eastern time and your mind really starts to wander. So you’ve really go to focus on the task at hand. PPV’s are weird; to me a three hour PPV goes by like that because its just concentration, you’ve got two other guys working with you to help carry the load, I don’t know. For some reason the three hour Raw seems real long, but then other days, like last night in Washington DC for the go-home for Wrestlemania, that show flew by. I looked at my watch and it was quarter to eleven. I was like, ‘holy cow, where did the show go?’ Then there’s other days where it’s like 10:15 and you’re like, ‘oh my god, how do I stay awake? Get me another Red bull.’ Again, it’s nothing to do with what’s going on in the ring or anything it’s just mentally trying to stay focused and alert for that amount of time on live television. Smackdown is different. You can go out there and screw around and you make a mistake you can fix it if you have to. On Raw, you’ve got to watch everything you say. Its complete concentration.
A lot of times the audience goes through peaks and valleys too throughout the show for three hours. The live crowd is up and down. So you have to try to get them going and get them up there. That’s your job as a commentator, make every match and every superstar and diva interesting. It’s difficult to do but it can be done. The thing about 3 hours is coming up with creative and different ways to say things, say different stories. How many times can we say The Rock’s going to be here tonight? Ten times you’re promoting it a show; you’ve got to try to come up with a different way to say it each time. There are a lot of things that go on that just a guy watching at home doesn’t realize. Tweaking ways you say things and trying to drive you guys in the right direction on certain characters and giving background on guys and there’s a lot of work that goes into this. Following Twitter, social media, oh my god that stuff is nonstop.
On Cena’s current heat
I think there’s a reason for that. Rock’s fresh. He’s not here all the time. Even during this run he’s missed a few Raw’s then comes back then miss a few Raw’s, so Rock’s fresh. He’s different and he’s bringing in a ton of new faces to our product because he’s a movie star. Arguably the hottest movie star in the world right now. So he’s bringing in a ton of new faces. He’s fresh, people watch him, people think it’s cool that a movie star is our champion. John is there every day. He’s been there for a decade. He’s in the trenches every single day. He’s at every live event. He’s on television every single week. He’s at every single PPV. I think that there’s a familiarity there. I think that fans of our product who watch it religiously and don’t miss a show, follow the inside workings of this, I think that characters like John to guys like yourself can get stale. I think that’s what our fans vocalize. I don’t think its dislike for John Cena; I think they appreciate everything John does. John is the most wonderful human being on the planet. He’s one of these guys, Ill preface this by saying he’s one of my closest friends in the business, but John has not changed in ten years here. John is one of these guys who has never changed who he is when he became famous. He’s the same guy that he was when he first walked in that door 10 years ago. He’s the same guy that’ll sit down in a lounge a chair and have a beer with you and put on some country music and shoot pool. He’s that way today just like he was 10 years ago. John does so much and you cannot overstate what John does not only for this company but for the charity organizations out there. When you grant over 300 wishes and being as busy and in demand as John Cena is, that says something about the man’s character. Granting 300 wishes, you’re not doing that for publicity. The Susan G Komen for the Cure, we did the breast cancer awareness for the first time last year, that was all John’s idea. John came to the company and said, ‘hey, listen, let’s do this.’ Next thing you know, we’ve got pink ropes and the pink ribbon all over the place and it was John’s idea. He felt passionately about that. So I don’t think the fans, unless they’re idiots, which I don’t think our fans are, some maybe, but I don’t think it’s a dislike of Cena personally.
I don’t want to see [a heel turn] happen. I love John how he is from a character standpoint. He loves the adversity. The one thing about John is that John will start out getting booed out of the building, whether he’s in a match or a promo, I guarantee you by the end of the match the fans are going to be applauding him and standing on their feet for what he either said or what he did in the ring. No matter what happens Sunday at Wrestlemania, no matter what happens in that match with Rock, I guarantee you that there will be a show of respect for both Cena and Rock at the end of that match. They may boo Cena out of MetLife Stadium, which they probably will because it’s a New York crowd, but I guarantee you by the time that’s over there will be respect there.
On his favorite call’s/matches
There were two that stand out. I’ve been doing this for so long, people always ask me, ‘what was your favorite match?’ ‘What do you think of this rivalry?’ I don’t remember. I don’t remember what happened two weeks ago sometimes on Raw that’s why I keep unbelievable notes in my iPad because I seriously don’t remember. We do so much programming, I call so many shows it’s hard to keep this stuff straight. But the one match that really stands out for me is the night, it was in February a number of years ago, I think it was No Way Out PPV, it was the night that Eddie won the WWE Championship from Brock and that call to me was my favorite, still to this day because I was real close with Eddie and I felt that that night when he won. This was really the crowning achievement for him. I lived through him with that. I called Mick Foley’s first championship match. I was sort of thrown into that because that’s when JR was sick so I really didn’t know what I was doing. I told Mick the other day that I wish that it happened like 5 years later so I could actually know what I was doing when I called it. Mick said, ‘hey, you did fine, it was wonderful.’ But the Eddie-Brock match was one. Undertaker-Shawn Michaels was a very emotional one. Shawn and I over the years had become really close. I can tell this story because Shawn and I talk about it all the time, we’ve actually talked about it on a DVD; I couldn’t stand him when I started in this company. I could not stand him for a number of reasons. But when he came back from his injury we got to know each other and got real close. We both live in Texas. We have a lot of the same interests; we hunt, we fish together. Actually, I’m the voice of his outdoor show, Macmillan River Adventures, on the Outdoor Channel. Calling that match to me was very emotional. The third match was last year’s Wrestlemania between Rock and Cena. It was fabulous, tremendous match to call. Probably thinking about it now, probably the best match I’ve ever called was the one a few weeks ago when Cena beat Punk to keep his opportunity to face Rock at Wrestlemania. It was like a three or four segment match on Monday Night Raw. It was incredible match and obviously when the guys have matches like that it makes our job easier. I very rarely at this point in my career go back and listen to a match that I called. I just don’t do it. I’ve got so much stuff going on that I just don’t have time. But I actually went back and listened to that match and I was very, very proud of that work. I had both Punk and Cena come to me and say, ‘listen that was fabulous.’ I think a lot of it has to do again with the fact that, remember how JR was Steve [Austin]‘s guy and JR got really emotional because him and Steve were so close. I think a lot of that happens with John and I because I am close with John. It’s just like anything else, when you’re emotionally attached to something, you’re going to be a little more into than you normally would. Plus that match was fabulous anyway. That was probably the favorite match that I’ve ever called.