Michael Cole enjoys three man booth, looks forward to teaming with Nigel McGuinness

For more than 17 years, Michael Cole has been a part of a WWE commentary team -- and he's looking forward to the new challenges the WWE United Kingdom championship tournament presents. Courtesy of WWE

Michael Cole found out he would be commentating on the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament just a week before the two-night event in Blackpool, England, was announced.

"Yeah, that's how we operate here," Monday Night Raw's veteran announcer told ESPN with a laugh at a news conference at London's O2 Arena.

WWE has obviously been working on this concept a little longer than that, though one of the men who will sit alongside Cole at the commentary booth at the historic Empress Ballroom on Jan. 14-15 -- when the inaugural WWE U.K. champion will be crowned -- was similarly brought in on short notice.

Joining Cole and Blackpool native William Regal (who's also the general manager of NXT and a global talent scout for WWE), Cole will be joined by U.K. independent scene mainstay Nigel McGuinness, who was also unveiled as part of the project Thursday, on the two-night broadcast on the WWE Network.

It is the first time that the now-retired 40-year-old has crossed paths with WWE, despite a storied career that saw him make his name in Ring of Honor in the United States and Japanese promotion Pro Wrestling Noah. McGuinness held the ROH Pure championship for 350 days, and the ROH World Championship for 545 days -- the second-longest stretch in that title's history, behind only Samoa Joe. He's among the most prolifically successful Englishmen ever to wrestle in the United States, and just the second to earn a major world title in the U.S. (after Gary Steele's 1999 NWA world title reign.

McGuinness left ROH for Total Nonstop Action in 2009 where he starred as Desmond Wolfe -- but only after a reported deal with WWE fell through due to apparent injury complications from his screening process. His injury issues eventually brought a premature end to his in-ring career in December 2011 -- but he returned to ROH as a commentator and on-screen character before finally parting ways with the company unexpectedly last week.

"Being here, being part of the WWE family is to me the realization of my childhood dream," McGuinness said on stage in London.

It also appears to have been a dream of Cole's to work with McGuinness.

"I cannot wait. I've been trying to get Nigel here for a long time," Cole told ESPN. "And this just worked out to be the perfect venue to bring him aboard.

"He's gonna start his career off as part of this tournament, but he's gonna be with WWE full time going forward," Cole continued. "We have a lot of plans for Nigel, and I think fans are going to be excited seeing what he has coming in his career. There's not a better person to be able to do this."

With WWE hoping to launch a weekly program off the back of the U.K. Championship tournament, London native McGuinness has been earmarked for a commentary role precisely because of his knowledge of the U.K. independent wrestling scene.

"I'm gonna be able to learn a lot from him over the next few weeks," Cole added. "He's wrestled a lot of the talent in this tournament, so he has the opportunity to bring some unique stories about them that no one else will.

"He has the flavour of wrestling in the United Kingdom; he did it for many years. This is his country, his homeland, he's very proud to be a part of this, and I'm very proud to have him by my side because I wouldn't be able to pull this off without him and his knowledge of what goes on here."

While McGuinness did not have to travel too far to get home following Thursday's press conference, Cole flew straight to Pittsburgh from London. He was back in the States for Roadblock: End of the Line at the PPG Paints Arena -- and back at the commentary booth with Corey Graves and Byron Saxton, whom he describes as "two of the best in the game today."

It is Graves, though, that receives special praise from Cole. Now 32, Graves -- like McGuinness -- saw his in-ring career ended prematurely by injury in 2014. He was thrown a lifeline by WWE executive Paul "Triple H" Levesque with a commentary role in NXT, and has taken to his new career like a duck to water.

So impressive has Graves been with a headset, he earned a call-up to the Raw commentary booth in July's brand split, and he also features on 205 Live -- the WWE Network's new cruiserweight-exclusive show on Tuesdays, as well as keeping up with his NXT duties at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.

"We knew he was gonna be good, I just didn't know he was gonna be this good, this fast," Cole said of Graves. "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," Cole continued. "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."

While Graves has drawn largely universal praise for his work on Raw, not everyone has been as complimentary about the dynamic of the three-man commentary booth.

Cole feels it brings out the best in him, however.

"I know a lot of critics don't like a three-man booth, but I enjoy it," Cole added. "The main reason is because it allows me to be right down the middle. I can just be an unbiased play-by-play guy, and let Corey have his views, and Byron have his views, and they can go back and forth and debate and argue with each other while I can just do what I do, which is call a match and tell stories.

"That's why I like the three-man booth. I think sometimes when you're in a two-man booth, I get bogged down having to be the good guy a little bit too much, or the bad guy as it used to be. It's tough that way, but just having that straight play-by-play guy to tell your stories, be unbiased, and have your two guys playing off each other, it's perfect."

It'll be a new dynamic in the booth with Regal and McGuinness, and Cole relishes the opportunity to find the balance in this new trio. Blackpool is already a town that is familiar with too, having spent a lot of time there with Regal 15 years ago while filming scenes for a DVD about the British wrestling legend's career.

"I had a blast there," he said. "I can't think of a better place. NXT was there a couple of years ago and completely blew the roof off the place. The United Kingdom is arguably our biggest market outside of the United States -- our most vocal fans, the most passionate. And we're so glad to be able to bring them this. We wanna give back to the United Kingdom for everything they've done for us. Doing this is a good start to that."

As much as there have been opportunities like the Cruiserweight Classic for young, up-and-coming talent, this will be Cole's first chance to truly step outside the WWE's flagship programming since the original version of NXT -- and he's relishing every minute of it.

"Somebody's gonna live a dream. Somebody's gonna hold a WWE championship above their head, outside of the United States. And it's a pretty cool thing."