Hearing the legendary voice of Jim Ross return to calling the action at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a welcome sound for any pro wrestling fan. Thankfully, NJPW seems to have left a lasting impression on JR, because Ross will be joining Josh Barnett on commentary for AXS TV’s New Japan coverage on Friday nights. Now that he’s back in the game, what does the WWE Hall of Famer have to say about Japanese wrestling and WrestleMania season? We were lucky enough to talk with him and find out.
How far back does your familiarity with New Japan Pro Wrestling go?
1974, when I got in the business. They were created in 1972, and a lot of guys in the Mid-South territory [like] Bill Watts, Leroy McGuirk, Danny Hodge, they were New Japan guys. I’ve heard and experienced firsthand from the guys I’d travel with about New Japan.
How did AXS TV approach you with the role of joining the commentary team?
They drove up to my house in an armored truck and started unloading bags of money… I’m kidding. They called my agent in November and wanted to know if I’d be interested in getting back in the game on a regular basis. I had not been interested [previously], because I didn’t want to do all that travel after 40 years of doing it, and I also wasn’t overwhelmed with some of the opportunities I had as far as the product was concerned. It’s hard to invest yourself wholeheartedly if you don’t like the product or you’re not sold on it… I love the New Japan presentation. My foray into broadcasting their biggest event of the year, Wrestle Kingdom 9, really cemented the fact… I didn’t know Mauro Ranallo was looking to go to WWE, it wasn’t any of my business, obviously. But when I was informed of the opportunity, I was motivated to get the deal done.
Speaking of Wrestle Kingdom 9, you’ve been singing the praises of Shinsuke Nakamura since then. How do you think he’ll fare in WWE, under the NXT banner and then eventually on the main roster?
He will do famously well if WWE uses him in the image of what he’s created, as far as his in-ring persona. In other words, if WWE doesn’t try to overhaul him, and I don’t have any idea why that would be [the case]. A lot of fans are concerned about it… He is a hugely charismatic individual. He’s on the same level, in my view, as Brock Lesnar. He’s got “it.” So, if they leave him alone and let him play to his strengths, he’ll be great. You hope to goodness they don’t put him in Great Muta or Great Kabuki face paint, spitting green mist at somebody or throwing salt, something totally antiquated and outdated. They’ve got a player on their hands, but if they try to reinvent him at this stage of his game after all his years in the business, I think they’d be making a grave error. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re smart enough to not tamper with what he is.
For those who might be unfamiliar with him, what can you say about your broadcast partner, Josh Barnett?
Highly intelligent, very cerebral, has an innate knowledge of the Japanese culture and the New Japan brand. Josh’s first pro [wrestling] match ever was in the Tokyo Dome against Yuji Nagata, so Josh has had a long time to experience New Japan. He’s great at describing why holds work, why they’re effective and why they’re being utilized. [He’s been] helping me with the correct pronunciation of the Japanese names. It’s a big deal if you’re a fan of the New Japan brand and old JR gets in there and starts mispronouncing names… We want to represent the company, build the network and the relationship with New Japan, no doubt. We want to get more involved with the presentation of New Japan in North America, if possible.
Also, we want to be the best broadcast team of the genre. I still think my best work is ahead of me. We’re going to get better with every show we have, and I think this first show is a good indication. It’s our first show out of the gate, and I think our voice-over work got better as we went along with the two days there in Los Angeles voicing shows over. I thought the second day, we just kicked ass.
Shifting away from NJPW a bit, do you have any opinions on Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania?
Until more of the story is told, I’m not one of those fans that’s going to look at my imaginary crystal ball and determine what is or isn’t going to happen. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on Twitter and on my website of people complaining about it: “Shane doesn’t deserve the match, what kind of match will it be?” To me, the match will be a very unique special attraction. Until we see it play out with all the bells and whistles, it’s hard to judge if it could be a success or a failure… What’s [Undertaker’s] motivation? Is he being forced into it by his contract? We don’t know enough about it.
What do you think of the recently announced Global Cruiserweight Series?
I think it’s a good idea, thinking outside the box. It’s a great way to scout, it’s a great way to bring guys in and see if you can find a few keepers among the participants. It’s also good for those guys to get some exposure, it helps them with their independent bookings. It’s a smart idea… The two reasons for that are Triple H and William Regal. Regal has an amazing gift for scouting talent and connecting with the right guys in and out of the ring, which is crucial. And Triple H has a great vision for opening up the playbook and getting more people involved.
I think we’re at a point now in pro wrestling where people, even though they like to see the big athletic guys do their thing, they’re not exclusive to that [style of wrestling]. As long as you’re good at what you do, you look like an athlete, and you’re fundamentally sound, it doesn’t matter if you’re 5-foot-10 or 6-foot-10. You’ve got a shot at getting over if you’re truly good at what you do in the ring.
Bridging the gap between New Japan and WWE, Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks have been asking for a shot at The New Day. Considering that we’ve seen things like Jushin Liger wrestling at NXT, do you think something like this could ever happen?
I’d be very surprised if it happened. I think it’s great social media fodder for young entities like Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks, they know how to play the social media game. I’d be shocked if it happened… “Pleasantly surprised” might be the better words. I just don’t see it happening because of New Japan’s relationship with Ring of Honor, but it’s good hype. You and I are talking about it, so I guess the mission worked.