With the craziness of the Royal Rumble and NXT TakeOver: San Antonio this past weekend, one of the stories that was understandably swallowed and ignored was Corey Graves announcing his departure from doing commentary for NXT.
On the pre-show for TakeOver, he choked back some tears and clarified that it was merely a situation where he has too many other responsibilities and can’t handle doing them all at the same time, so taking his place would be Nigel McGuinness.
Slowly but surely, we’re seeing some of the older names step aside while younger/newer talent replace them. A few years back, Booker T made the transition to a panelist instead of a commentator and Jerry Lawler eventually did the same. There have been little additions here and there, but in the past few months, the pace has ramped up.
In an interview with ESPN for the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, Michael Cole acted as an ambassador of sorts and put over the incoming Nigel McGuinness, speaking about looking forward to working with him and so forth. While McGuinness is still coming off awkward and uncomfortable—that’s a different discussion for a different day—but his replacement of Graves is not a demotion for the latter, but a vote of confidence due to how many projects he’s been trusted to work on.
Even while talking about McGuinness, Cole couldn’t help but put over Byron Saxton and Graves, calling them “two of the best in the game today.” In fact, when speaking about Graves, he further elaborated:
“We knew he was gonna be good, I just didn’t know he was gonna be this good, this fast. We gave him a chance and he really worked hard at it. This didn’t come to him easy. He put a lot of time in at the Performance Center, and hours and hours of work. We put him on Raw, and he took off. He’s the new guy. He’s the new heel. He’s the next JBL, the next Jerry Lawler. He’s got a unique presence, he’s got sarcasm and he’s got wit, and he also has the experience of being in the ring, being a former NXT tag team champion. He has everything. A good looking young kid. He’s the future of what we do here.”
Bold statements from the current voice of WWE, but the way he’s being given jobs left and right proves that this isn’t just Cole’s point of view, but whoever is calling the shots. Graves has been doing Raw, 205 Live, NXT and the NXT pre-shows among other sporadic things and he only just started a few years ago when he was forced to retire. He didn’t get into this wanting to be a commentator, but he turned a negative into a positive and now, he’s worked his way up the ladder significantly.
There have been rumors that Cole is looking to start taking on more of a backstage role nowadays. In what capacity that will be, we don’t know yet, but for Cole to step down or slowly ween himself away from the commentary table will be huge. Who will take his place?
If you look at the structure of commentary teams right now, Raw consists of Cole as the middle ground play-by-play who steers the ship, Graves is the heelish color commentator and Saxton is the babyface color commentator. 205 Live switches it up a bit where Mauro Ranallo takes Cole’s position, Graves is almost a more neutral man and Austin Aries is the clearly defined heel. SmackDown keeps Ranallo for play-by-play, JBL as the closest thing to the heel color role, and try as they might, David Otunga is supposed to be the babyface color commentator but he’s just horrendous. More on that later.
But why is Tom Phillips on SmackDown? Having a four-person team is strange and most of the time, it revolves around Ranallo and JBL anyway. Well, for those who don’t watch NXT, Phillips is the play-by-play commentator there and has been for quite some time with Graves where the two have fantastic chemistry together. Recently, they brought back Percy Watson, who seems to be struggling quite a bit to remember that he should even talk, let alone know what to say at the right times. It’s a difficult job and not everybody can do it, even if they have charisma in other aspects, but you never know who will be good until you try them out and sometimes, who they’re sitting next to is an enormous factor in how comfortable they feel.
It won’t be happening in the next few weeks or anything, but I’m convinced WWE is currently looking at the future of the commentary teams to have some adjustments. I would not be surprised at all to see Tom Phillips either join Graves and Saxton as Raw’s new play-by-play announcer or if they move Ranallo from blue to red, he would take over his spot as SmackDown’s main guy. Somebody else would take his place on NXT, which is not only a show that you can edit around, but you know for sure not as many people are watching it and those who do are fully aware that it is a testing ground and developmental platform, so they’re more willing to forgive.
Why Phillips? Beside the four-man team being suspicious and the fact that he’s just flat out good at the job and deserves a promotion down the line, this Royal Rumble saw another transition with Charly Caruso taking over Tom’s role in the social media lounge, while Mike Rome has been used a lot as of late for a backstage interviewer role that Phillips used to also do on the side.
Charly, by the way, has made massive leaps in her career over the past few months. If I remember correctly, she made her debut sometime in the early summer of 2016 and within that time frame has gone from a brand new identity in NXT to a staple of the Raw broadcast correspondent team who also manages the pre-shows of NXT and fills in elsewhere from time to time. Apparently, she’s now also the go-to for the social media lounge. These are roles Renee Young herself has had in the past, but Renee has herself moved up to being a permanent fixture of Talking Smack and pay-per-view panels.