When Jerry Lawler’s domestic abuse charges were dropped, fans were delighted that the recently reinvigorated, newly heelish King would resume his position in the SmackDown commentary booth. Given who the WWE chose to replace him with, his return came not a moment too soon.
But now, in light of the recent WWE draft, we learn that Lawler has been ditched from commentary for good, to be replaced on SmackDown Live by David Otunga, again. What exactly the future holds for Lawler is unclear, but however far he has fallen from his heyday, he does not deserve to be reduced to sitting on pre-show panels trying to understand a word that Booker T is saying.
The decision to have Otunga filling Lawler’s shoes is not unexpected, given the WWE’s bizarre choices when it comes to announcers. These days, with the exception of Mauro Ranallo, the company favors young, cookie cutter announcers who look ‘good’ on camera and sound exactly the same. Josh Matthews, Rich Brennan, Tom Phillips — all of them homegrown, unexciting and uninspiring. These men were all play-by-play guys, so a degree of drab announcing isn’t too unforgiveable.
But making color commentators — the people who are obviously supposed to add ‘color’ and entertainment to the lineup — out of drab rookies completely defeats the purpose of the role. The WWE has seemingly forgotten what a color commentator is for, and what makes a good one.
The job of a color commentator is not just to be witty and cool on the mic, their primary purpose is to bring a wealth of technical wrestling knowledge to the table, to be an authority on what hurts and why, on the in-ring strategy of wrestlers, and how they compare with figures from wrestling history or make their own mark on the business.
Otunga does neither particularly well. Whatever you might think of JBL, he at least fits the bill of a good color guy — he can be very entertaining (when he isn’t being over-produced; compare his original SmackDown run to how he is now). He has wrestled all over the world, accrued respect for his achievements, and at least is speaking from a position of expertise and discretion when he’s knocking other wrestlers.
Otunga, on the other hand, has only ever wrestled in WWE. You’d be hard pressed to name a single match he has had in the last few years, or one from his days as an active competitor, that was worth watching, let alone great. He is a limited in-ring performer (let’s be blunt — his wrestling absolutely stank), and has no legitimacy as a wrestling expert. As such, he is not someone who can be taken particularly seriously by audiences at home.
Having someone as young and inexperienced as Otunga calling the matches is also bound to generate some backstage heat. Otunga would be perfectly fine as a TV presenter, and indeed, it is this air that the WWE seems to favor when it comes to their programming these days; but he fails to command any respect as a commentator, and it leaves a particularly sour taste when one considers the amount of people on the roster who could do a superior job.
When young, up and coming current stars like Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose have had no commentary training and yet are more entertaining in the booth than you are, it’s time to hang up your headset.
Jerry Lawler is better now than he has been for over a decade, although he has never quite reached the heights of his 90s brilliance. He is far from irreplaceable, but the idea that the WWE would replace a giant like him with someone like Otunga and the tiresome, repetitive JBL, and not get rid of Michael Cole or Byron Saxton, is absurd.
SmackDown Live’s announce team is still the best in the company because of the supreme Mauro Ranallo, but surely the WWE Universe would prefer him to be joined by Jerry Lawler’s one-liners over JBL shouting “LUNATIC BALLGAME MAGGLE!” every five seconds, and Otunga saying… well, absolutely nothing of worth.