Around 9 p.m. ET Monday night, I started penning this very edition of The Commentary. It was to focus on CM Punk’s impact off the bat at the show’s start, interrupting the legendary Bret Hart in Montreal and entering to boos.
It was to focus on the excellent usage of Paul Heyman, who even with doing little, added so much more depth to Punk’s heel persona.
Hell, it was even to discuss how unwarranted Alicia Fox’s sudden heel turn was, and how frustrated I am with the lack of direction in (or for that matter, regard for) the Diva’s division.
Suddenly, all of that became meaningless. Monday Night RAW, a scripted program wrapped within the realms of what every non-wrestling fan loves to point out as a “fake” business, became very real. WWE color commentator Jerry Lawler collapsed at ringside, and was rushed backstage. We now know that the 62-year-old Hall of Famer and wrestling legend had a heart attack.
Earlier in the night, Lawler got involved in a tag match that involved himself teaming with Randy Orton to take on Punk and Dolph Ziggler. The match that saw Heyman seemingly drag Punk away from the action, Lawler still got in much offense on the fallen Ziggler, including two of his trademark diving fist drops. I noted aloud to my colleagues that I thought he looked a little more winded than normal, though did not expect anything out of the ordinary to occur, obviously.
Then, in the midst of the tag match that involved the team of Kane and Daniel Bryan against the Prime Time Players (who, by the way, have definitively lost any investment that was placed in them), I very suddenly discovered the lack of commentary, and subsequent staring towards the announce table by the fans in the audience. When broadcasters, regardless of the sport, have established a presence on a telecast, their lack of presence is quickly realized.
Immediately, as the reports on social media grew that Lawler had collapsed, a sense of emptiness filled my stomach. I felt like I was swallowing my own throat. Here, in Montreal, Bret Hart was being honored, while Lawler had been one of the first in the ring to tend to the former’s brother when he passed away in the ring at Over The Edge in 1999. The irony was sick and cruel.
Could Lawler have suffered a heart attack at the expense of the match he had just participated in due to his age? Perhaps, but unlikely. The man is active several times a week, be it in WWE or the independents. This, was in all likelihood, a fluke.
Nonetheless, disaster could have further struck. WWE could have canceled the show. They had, after all, been severely criticized for continuing the Over The Edge broadcast in the wake of Owen’s death. In this business though, no matter how cruel it may sound, the show must go on.
WWE has contractual obligations with television networks to cover those three full hours of broadcasting. They had promised all the fans in attendance, especially the extremely hot crowd that was Montreal, a show. No matter what the circumstances, they have to deliver. It is not an immoral decision. They have to do as necessary.
So instead of canceling the broadcast, how did WWE handle itself following Lawler’s collapse, which occurred with one hour remaining in the show? Here is where I showcase the brilliance that would soon follow.
We begin with Michael Cole. Cole, a former news journalist who has covered political turmoil and war, demonstrated the poise that I could only hope that I would have possessed if such a tragedy ever hit me while behind the microphone. While storyline rivals, it is clear that Lawler and Cole are close, as demonstrated by the shakiness in the latter’s voice following the incident. While he initially attempted to finish off the match, it was clear that he was rattled, and opted (out of respect) to not commentate the rest of the evening.
Fortunately, he provided updates on Lawler’s conditions throughout the evening, and despite still clearly nerved over the incident, kept his demeanor and assured everyone watching at home that everything would be alright. For the first time in his 15 year tenure, I legitimately believed that Cole was what his moniker suggests he is.
The voice of the WWE.
Additionally, the company did an excellent job maintaining its poise in terms of production. Even as Vince McMahon surely attended to Lawler, Kevin Dunn made sure the production did not falter, and everything remained seamless.
Though we were promised a main event confrontation between Bret Hart and John Cena, three matches still remained in the middle. And this is where credit is due to all of the performers. Tyson Kidd and Alberto Del Rio put on a clinic, while Cody Rhodes became relevant again after his match with Rey Mysterio and his declaration of his desire for the Intercontinental Championship. We also got more from Sheamus and David Otunga, which concluded with both general managers coming out to continue the angle.
Then, it came down to the interview. Cena came out with less pep in his step than normal, as did Bret. Nonetheless, Cena made a compelling argument against Punk’s claims that he is a respectable champion. The single most important aspect of the go-home episode of RAW before a pay-per-view is to sell the main event, and Cena and Hart alone were making a good case.
Until the champion showed up.
As Punk hit the ring, we were exposed to true brilliance. For what I believe is the first time in the Punk/Cena feud, the line was clearly drawn between who is face and who is heel. As Punk put down Hart, Cena, Shawn Michaels, The Rock and even Stone Cold Steve Austin, he was accompanied by massive heat.
Even without Heyman.
Then came Cena. While I am normally bored and pushed away by his monotonous promos, I genuinely believed the he delivered what was quite possibly his best ever inflection Monday night. He spoke of how Punk promised change, but instead, the only change that was accomplished was for himself. As I stated last week, this aspect had to be stressed, or else it would be impossible to get Punk over as a heel. He was in it for him, not the fans.
Much like last year’s Night of Champions promo with Punk and Triple H, the end saw both men guaranteeing an ass-kicking, and got extremely personal and nearly physical very fast. For the first time in a long time, Punk looked defeated, and resorted to punching out Bret, which backfired.
The ending to RAW was gold. Not only because it sold Night of Champions and the legitimacy of the Punk/Cena feud, but because it showed what WWE does best. Even in the face of tragedy, even with a situation that literally saw a legend stare death in the eyes, WWE delivered its specialty.
Here is to well wishes in Lawler’s recovery, from not only a writer, but a lifelong fan.
Did WWE handle the situation correctly? Be sure to comment with your thoughts below.
Jon Alba is a broadcast journalism student at Quinnipiac University, and the head administrator of SportsFullCircle. He has been an avid wrestling fan for more than 15 years. Follow Jon Alba on Twitter!