I’ve been thinking a lot about the human voice lately, about how pared back my experience of it has been over the last month and a half. When I’m not writing about professional wrestling and when I’m not a poet, I’m the manager of a record store. Before my store closed down last month, I spent my time talking to people—most of them strangers—about things they loved. It was exhausting, this cacophony of middle aged Steely Dan fans, frat boys trying to prioritize Kanye records, R.E.M.-obsessed tourists, and the Sade I probably had on the hi-fi, but it was also invigorating. I had a job where I got to hear someone in the act of enjoying something.
With that new lack in my life, and with the launch of Fanfyte VCR sending me deep into the recesses of my memory for good WWF matches to eventually watch with Hunktears, I’d already been thinking about Howard Finkel before he died on April 16, this small man with a voice fit to announce the arrival and departure of gods far more awesome than those who stalked the rings of the World Wrestling Federation, someone so obviously, impossibly in love with his work that to listen to him makes it possible to believe that wrestling has something inherently good about it, even if what he’s drawing your attention to is a Jose Luis Rivera match.
Howard Finkel was a ring announcer, one of the most thankless gigs in professional wrestling despite its on-camera prominence. WWE has changed a lot since Finkel was their first hire—one of the things they’ve done to put more emphasis on its wrestlers is to anonymize support staff like referees and ring announcers. Their style, their various tics are not important to the Bobby Lashley match on offer. It’s just a job.
Immediately after his passing, the thing most fans remembered was the way he said “AND NEW” whenever there was a new champion. It never clicked for me before this that the hitch in some ring announcers’ voices in making the announcement, the #ANDNEW that goes up on social media when there’s a new champion, was grounded in the way he said the words, which are, as you can see in the WWE’s tribute video to him, all over some of the most famous moments in the history of professional wrestling. The video leads with him announcing Ricky Steamboat’s WrestleMania III victory over Randy Savage. It’s not just his lungs—the Fink gives that moment his whole damn body, a physical, emotional, cathartic act of witness.
As I say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the human voice lately, how some are seared into my brain by my love for the person, the way it’s fun to try and mimic singing voices, and the way I’ve just watched so much professional wrestling that I just know how certain men’s voices sound. Wrestling is a poet’s medium—listen to Dusty Rhodes or Randy Savage speak and tell me I’m wrong—but it is also a sport, a thing where action happens and must be explained. Announcers, and I say this having been one, are not poets, but they are students of it, interpreters of it—they take the language of the body and make it understood. Gorilla Monsoon. Jesse Ventura. Jim Ross. Lance Russell. Bobby Heenan. Tony Schiavone. Gordon Solie. Gene Okerlund. Howard Finkel. These are the voices of professional wrestling, the ones everybody holding a microphone is grappling with.
Finkel may be the least likely of those names. He’s not interviewing Hulk Hogan or leading you through the intricacies of a full arm drag and twist. He’s not speaking for two hours a week on Mondays or putting out a cigarette to document some weird Memphis violence. It’s easy to understand how incredibly talented play-by-play and color commentary announcers get to be as important to what they’re covering as the people they’re covering. It’s not hard to appreciate work Gene Okerlund did when you watch how others handled the same duties. It’s not that way with ring announcing, which is one of the weirdest jobs in wrestling to quantify. On the one hand, its importance is obvious: Someone is coming to the ring, and it would be nice to know who they are. On the other hand, how many times have you heard someone wax rhapsodic over the dulcet tones of Gary Michael Capetta?
I know that to really quantify Howard Finkel’s contributions to wrestling means noting his backstage role with the WWE and how he coined the term “WrestleMania,” but it’s his voice that really matters. Yeah, it’s the emphasis on “and new,” but it’s also the way he said “coming down the aisle” and “Parts Unknown,” the number of Os in his pronunciation of “Hogan” and the way the words “Stone Cold” felt like a hammer. There’s something visceral about it, beyond childhood. I was a WCW kid. I had David Penzer most nights and Michael Buffer when the matches really mattered. Since then there’s been Lilian Garcia, Tony Chimel, Justin Roberts, and too many nameless people doing the gig for me to register. You bring any of those guys out and it’s business as usual. You bring out the Fink and you get a pop. He is The Guy, the undisputed guy in a field where very few issues are so clear cut, a voice that has heralded dreams made reality in the ring and has spurred others to chase those dreams.
This is a kind of magic peculiar to professional wrestling, that a announcer can be as important to the medium as the wrestlers. There are a lot of great announcers in sports, a million great calls. But there exists countless hours of sports footage that’s just two or three men relaying the events as they happen on the field. It is difficult to craft a larger narrative meaning out of the events of a given sport beyond the goal of becoming a champion, or a title meaning so much to a given city. The job of sports broadcasting involves panache, sure, but it has more in common with journalism than wrestling commentary, which is where someone like Howard Finkel gets to take his place in a sport otherwise given to immortalizing its most outlandish characters.
Wrestling commentary pushes narratives, masks flaws, and highlights the best parts of what’s going on in the ring. It also establishes the mood, and in televised wrestling the live crowd only has the ring announcer to go on. Scroll back up to that compilation of AND NEWs and look at his positioning during his WrestleMania III announcement, how palpably excited he was for the conclusion of that match, at the sheer scale of announcing a new champion to such a massive crowd. Put on a title match from 97-98 or an old MSG main event and watch him literally square up to the microphone for his introductions, threatening to knock the mic out with his enthusiasm.
Even before his passing, sometimes I’d watch the video above, where he brings CM Punk to the ring at Survivor Series 2011. It’s one of the most genuine moments of its time, a man briefly returning to a role he defined, utterly stunned by the reception. How often do you see people in wrestling cry to the extent that they need to take a moment before carrying out their job? Man, what a job—the sheer number of people who’ve done it but won’t be so fondly remembered, and the one who is. What was it about Howard Finkel’s voice that made it so? I think there was an openness to it, a genuineness. You can feel the man’s excitement for what’s about to come. You can feel what he feels when those moments come to pass. His were very specific notes to play in the symphony that is professional wrestling, but he always killed those notes. What else can the sport do but commit his name to memory? It’s the least the medium can do.