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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lingering Questions After The Lawler Scare

Last night’s Raw gave wrestling fans one of the scarier moments in the sport’s history when Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack at the announcers’ table while providing color commentary for a match. It goes without saying that the primary concern of WWE officials, performers, and fans alike should be Lawler’s speedy recovery. Not only is “The King” a wrestling legend and a pop culture icon, but more importantly, he’s a father and a dear friend to countless people both in and out of the wrestling business. Whether he ever steps into the ring or behind the announce table is almost a trivial matter when compared to what’s really important—that Lawler get well and be able to enjoy the rest of his life with health and happiness.
That said, last night’s frightening incident does raise several important questions, even if right now is not the time to answer them.

Is it a good idea to have a 62-year-old man wrestle semi-regularly, or at all?
The answer to that question is probably not as obvious as it may seem. That’s because not all 62-year-old men are alike. Not only does Lawler appear to keep himself in good shape, but he also wrestles a fairly conservative style that should not take as much a toll on his body than if other wrestlers tried to compete at his age. That said, a more important number than Lawler’s age may be how long he’s been wrestling (an astonishing 42 years) and how many hours of travel his body endures each week—especially since he’s been wrestling at WWE live events as of late. The collective wear and tear of such a long career could cause serious health issues in a person even half Lawler’s age. And when you’re pushing senior-citizenship, it could be potentially life-threatening.

Have we seen the last of Jerry Lawler in the ring or behind the announce table?
We can all be certain that, at the very least, it will be months before Lawler calls another WWE match. And it’s a good bet that Vince McMahon won’t allow him to wrestle in one of his rings ever again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Lawler’s wrestling career is over. The fact is, in recent years Lawler has been doing most of his wrestling on the independent circuit. If, God willing, he gets better, it may be next to impossible to keep Lawler out of a wrestling ring permanently. When wrestling is in your blood like it is in Lawler’s, it’s hard to accept that you’ve wrestled your final match. It’s a little more likely that Lawler will eventually return to the announce table, but certainly not a given. Regardless of whether he’s competing in the ring, working for WWE even once a week comes with a hectic travel schedule and can make it tough to live a healthy lifestyle.

Should the show have gone on?
It’s a tough question, and one that has haunted WWE for 13 years since the night Vince McMahon chose to go ahead with the Over the Edge pay-per-view even after Owen Hart fell to his death in the ring. Hindsight is always 20/20, and WWE could not know how serious Lawler’s situation was until he was admitted into a hospital and thoroughly examined. The company knew this much: Lawler was alive and breathing on his own when he left the building. What’s more, they knew they had a commitment to fill another hour of television time on the USA Network, and to put on a show for the fans inside the Bell Centre in Montreal. In the end, I think WWE officials handled the situation as best they could under the circumstances by having the planned in-ring segments take place without commentary, and using Michael Cole to regularly update fans. I’m sure nobody at WWE was much in the mood to work after seeing Lawler taken away in an ambulance, but they did all have a job to do.

Was it a lot to ask WWE’s Raw announce team to increase its workload by half when the show was extended to three hours?
It may only amount to an extra hour of work a week, but WWE’s decision to extend Raw from two hours to three hours in July assured that Lawler would spend 50 percent more time each Monday in the stressful position of calling live television. Little has been said about it, but the fact is that the WWE performers most affected by Raw’s expansion have been its announce team. Regardless of whether or not the extra work factored into Lawler’s health issues, it had to add a little more stress to his life.

Are part-time WWE performers, like Lawler, subject to the company’s Wellness Program, and should they be?
This question could probably be answered with a simple yes or no by WWE, but it’s not clear at this time. On one hand, as an announcer working on WWE’s production side, Lawler probably would not be subject to the wellness policy, which tests performers annually for cardiac issues. On the other hand, Lawler has been working a semi-regular ring schedule as of late alongside other WWE wrestlers who are subject to the policy. Certainly, any 62-year-old man would stand to benefit from getting his ticker regularly checked out, especially before exerting himself in a wrestling match.

Did last night’s situation serve as an example of why WWE should avoid simulating such grave health scares in the future?
I was only half-paying attention to Raw last night when the Lawler incident occurred. And so when Michael Cole explained on camera later in the night that Lawler had passed out at the announce table, I thought the same thing that I imagine scores of other wrestling fans thought: that this was all part of the show. And even through the end of Raw, I was still a little skeptical that the Lawler situation was legitimate. It wasn’t until I visited various credible wrestling websites that confirmed that Lawler had collapsed that I was convinced that the situation was all too real. You can accuse me of being too cynical, but the sad truth is that WWE has cried wolf too many times with staged injuries and other medical emergencies that they’ve tried their hardest to pass off as legitimate. It seems like at least once a year a WWE announce team grimly addresses the fans at home about a storyline development with the same tone that Jim Ross used on the night Owen Hart died. In as much as WWE is in the drama business, I understand the need to present everything that happens on its television shows with a sense of realism. But the goal should be to keep fans’ suspension of disbelief while they are watching a product that they know is entertainment. It should not be to fool them. Imagine if the director of 1993’s The Crow put out a sequel to the film and made up a story about another actor being accidentally shot dead on the set, just like Brandon Lee was in the original film. It would be deceitful and tasteless. That’s not too far removed from what WWE has done time and again since Hart’s death. Think I'm exaggerating? Maybe you should be reminded of this 2007 press release on WWE's corporate website <> . And so when an actual tragedy occurs on one of their shows, inevitably some fans are going to be dubious about whether it’s legit.

Should last night mark the end of the heel Michael Cole character?
Unquestionably, the wrestling universe’s thoughts and sympathies should have been with Jerry Lawler and his family in the moments after he collapsed on television. But, I, for one, couldn’t help but feel for Michael Cole, who was put in the unenviable position of having to continue doing his job even as he watched his longtime friend and broadcast partner in a potentially life-threatening medical emergency beside him. Cole stepped up and did an admirable job, not only of calling the action until his WWE bosses made the call to go silent on commentary, but also of updating fans with the latest information on Lawler’s condition. Cole was sincere, composed, informed, authoritative, and even brave. It was a reminder of what, at its best, the job of a play-by-play man in any sport should be. It was also a reminder of how good Cole could be if he weren’t forced into the money-losing role of the villainous announcer who hates all things good, including Lawler, and whose primary task is to steal attention away from the real stars of the show. Cole is so much better than that, and he showed it last night. Let’s hope he doesn’t revert back to his old ways.

What becomes of WWE’s announce team?
In the grand scheme of things, this should be the least of WWE’s concerns. But nevertheless, the reality is that, come next Monday, there will be an empty seat to fill at the announcer’s table. Mostly likely, it will be occupied by Josh Mathews, who does a serviceable job with Cole on Smackdown every Friday night. With the brand split all but finished, it’s less of an issue now than ever to have the same announce team call both shows. But, in the long term, WWE needs to get new and talented announcers in the pipeline for the future. The  existing announcing roster is rounded out by the likes of the obnoxious Matt Striker and the overzealous Scott Stanford. William Regal has shown some promise doing commentary on some of WWE’s web shows, but his style may be too mellow and subdued for prime time viewers. Of course, WWE does have a fairly experienced employee on its payroll by the name of Jim Ross, who just happens to be the greatest wrestling announcer in history. But it’s become obvious over recent years that Vince McMahon just does not want Ross as the face of his flagship show. WWE will most likely scout for young, camera-friendly broadcaster-types, but it should also scout for older, more-seasoned wrestling veterans, like Lawler. They should even consider former WWE broadcasters from long ago. In most pro sports, age isn’t a negative for a broadcaster. It’s a positive, as fans want a wise and experienced voice calling the action. My wish list would include John Layfield, Sean Mooney, and Kevin Kelly. WWE might even try out veteran wrestlers with no past broadcasting experience, like Dustin Runnels, Ron Simmons, and even Edge, assuming any of them would be interested in the job.

Al Castle

PWI Senior Writer

1 comment:

Tony Laplume said...

I have to admit, I was one of those fans who half-assumed that it was a work, but in all seriousness wish Lawler the best recovery.

As for a possible replacement, wouldn't it be awesome to get Heyman back? Imagine what Raven would be like, wrestling's version of Dennis Leary, a more experienced version of Matt Striker.