LANCE RUSSELL: Better Than Being There

It’s safe to say that Lance Russell was the nicest man in the wrestling business. I’ve tried to write this column for most of the week, and that’s what it comes back to: Lance Russell was a terrific human being who never let the wrestling business change him.

Lance Russell in his golden years sitting in an arm chair smiling
Lance Russell interviewed a who’s who of wrestling stars during a career that spanned six decades in the wrestling business. Through it all, he maintained his sense of humor and his dignity. Russell died October 3, 2017, at 91 years old.

Russell, 91, died on Oct. 3, after complications from a fall. If there was a Mount Rushmore of wrestling announcers, he would be on it. Watching him direct traffic on the live WMC wrestling show was a joy. He didn’t just call the action. He directed traffic. Lance Russell essentially held a live wrestling show together on the air every Saturday for three decades. He announced wrestling matches in parts of six decades. He was smart to the business in the best way possible, and he was generous on-air with the talent. He helped the boys get themselves over.

What else needs to be said about Lance Russell as an announcer?

There are wrestling announcers who were better. Gordon Solie could probably call a main-event match better. Jim Ross was perfect for the bombastic Attitude Era in the WWE. Boyd Pierce’s loud suits and down-home attitude worked for much of Mid-South’s run. Charlie Platt in Southeastern was always convincing in his earnestness. Mark Lowrance in World Class … well, they can’t all be winners.

But Lance Russell was in a class of his own. His fundamental decency came through to the audience, week after week, month after month, year after year. For a young wrestling fan, listening to him announce wrestling was like sitting in your favorite uncle’s home while he told entertaining stories about outlandish people he knew.

The difference between Russell and Solie was this: Solie got the actual in-ring action over with the fans. But Russell was better at getting the individual talents over, if that makes sense. He was such a consummate professional that he could (and did) lead young, inexperienced talents through their first on-screen time. And when veteran talents might be having an off day on the microphone, Russell was there to save them, too. And don’t get me wrong–Russell’s reactions to the action taking place in the ring were always priceless. When he was outraged, the fans knew they should be outraged, too.

And Lance was a hero. Did you know that? There was a time when someone called in a bomb threat to the TV studio while the wrestling show was going on live. As everyone else was evacuated, Russell and Jerry “the King” Lawler ad-libbed and stretched the time during a 20-minute segment, just so that the fans at home wouldn’t realize something was wrong. Russell knew that if fans found out that they could take the live show off the air, it would happen all the time. Russell and Lawler saved the show, and not just for that day.

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Here’s one of my favorite examples of Russell holding the show together as Jerry Lawler receives the “Mexico’s Most Popular TV  Wrestler” award … I don’t know how he didn’t bust a gut during this. I’d have died laughing. But of course, Russell is a consummate pro.

But that was Russell, putting over Austin Idol as a tremendous asshole, selling the indignation that this wonderful moment for Lawler was all just a setup by the Universal Heartthrob.

Lance Russell  – Better Than Being There:

Former newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard once wrote that listening to University of Georgia football radio play-by-play man Larry Munson was “better than being there” for the big games. It was absolutely the same with Lance Russell. His ability, his generosity, and his fundamental decency led TV wrestling in the Memphis territory for decades. His work, week in and week out, was can’t-miss TV. Listening to him call the show in the studio was priceless.

It’s been a hard week. A madman with a gun killed 59 people in Las Vegas and wounded more than 500. Tom Petty died. And now to have Lance Russell taken from us, too … it’s a harder week than a lot of us would care to admit. Lance Russell embodied what it meant to be a great ring announcer and a great person, too.

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Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.