For nearly three generations of pro wrestling fans, Jim Ross is what wrestling sounds like. His career has lasted four decades, from the days of the Bill Watts' and Jim Crockett's Southern style to his iconic, never to be reproduced calls from WWE's Attitude Era days. Now he's taking on New Japan Pro Wrestling's American show—on Friday nights at 9 pm Eastern on AXS-TV, and as Jules Bentley has already written in this space, it is astounding and utterly unlike anything else. Ross will also do some boxing announcing for CBS. Ross and I talked over the phone about why NJPW was exciting enough to lure him back into wrestling, what it takes to call a wrestling match right, and whether Shinsuke Nakamura can be as big a star in WWE as he is in Japan.
It's good to talk to you. I'm a North Carolina boy so I grew up on Mid-South and NWA and that style of wrestling.
It's part of your culture, your heritage!
It totally is! Southern rasslin' and blood and guts.
Yeah, man. Rasslin', barbecue, it's all there!
You were in quasi-retirement after leaving WWE. What was it about NJPW that excited you enough to commit to another announcing gig?
I wasn't overwhelmed with the way I made my exit [from WWE] in 2013. I still felt like I had some tread on the tire. I never got over pro wrestling, I enjoyed it and it was fun for me. I did it for so long that it became part of my DNA, I guess. But I turned down a few other wrestling gigs. Either I didn't like the product or I wasn't crazy about the travel—you know, I did the travel 51 weeks a year forever. I liked the fact that AXS lets me come out 8 to 10 times a year to L.A. It's not a bad place to go hang your hat for 2 or 3 days. I enjoy that, and my wife enjoys it; that always helps.
I really am entertained and invigorated by [New Japan's] product. And I like the fact that Mark Cuban [AXS TV's founder and CEO] has ample money. I wanted just a little piece of it. Everywhere we turned, it was a win. We were approached by AXS in November, I think it was. My manager calls me and says, "Hey, would you like to do the wrestling on AXS TV on Friday nights?"
Well wait a minute, what about Mauro? Talking about Mauro Ranallo [NJPW's longtime voice]. And he says that Mauro's going to WWE, and I'm thinking wow. He says, "You didn't know that?" and I say no, I didn't have any idea. He said "Well I think it's off the record," so I kept it to myself, but then I said yeah, if we can work out a deal which makes sense. It just fit!
I like the product, I like the travel, I like the guys in AXS. This is a pretty cool deal. Cuban's got some really eclectic, young, intelligent people working for him on the television side. It's really cool, and the other thing I liked about it is that... much like you and I started our conversation off, telling me about you being a North Carolinian and following the product, one of their guys is a North Carolinian, an attorney, he lives in Raleigh, and the other, the president of their MMA division lives in Las Vegas. But they're lifelong wrestling fans.
When I can sit down at lunch and they can quote some of the things I said on TV 15 years ago, you know that they're wrestling fans. I enjoy that energy. That is invigorating. Everything about it is a win for me. I'm happy. [And] I'm happy Mauro got the gig in WWE. It kind of brings him full circle.
He's been really good when I've caught him on Smackdown.
He's excellent! He's a great hire. They talk about WWE hiring Nakamura and AJ Styles, Gallows and Anderson, you gotta put Mauro in that group, too. Mauro's as good a hire as those other guys.
I was going to ask, there were those high profile departures to WWE from New Japan. In your opinion, they're going to be able to cope with that talent drain well, they've got a fairly deep roster, but who's that next guy at the top of the card? Obviously Kenny Omega comes up, but is there a dark horse you think can make it to the top?
That's not already there?
The good news is that once Tanahashi gets fully healthy, he's got so many more years left. And I love Okada. Okada's just a... he reminds me of a young Rock in the way he carries himself. He's a good looking kid and he can look with one expression he's a heel, he looks with another and he's a babyface. Really good, has great instincts, sells really well... is a great salesman, which I think is awesome. All the greats I ever saw could sell. A lot of guys in today's world kind of forget that skill set.
But they got a lot of guys. I like some of their smaller guys. I like Goto, I think Goto's a good hand. Whether he can be the guy, I don't know, but he's not ever going to have a bad match. You got young guys like Kushida, who won the Super Juniors Tournament, he's an amazing wrestler. The finals, with Kushida versus Kyle O'Reilly in Ring of Honor, it was the only match in the entire hour. It was, as my grandfather would say, a stemwinder. It was a great match—all logical, made all the sense in the world—and it was just a story so well-told.
For a 40-year veteran of broadcasting to get motivated to places he hasn't been in a long time over a Super Junior 60-minute match—you know, that's a pretty good experience. It really felt good to experience that again. So it's going to be a fun series on Friday nights. We hope to concentrate on calling the matches and not focus on creating witty broadcaster repartee. News anchor repartee is sometimes painfully bad, even on regular TV.
So we're going to stick with what brought us to the dance and what we see, and make you feel, hopefully, that what you see is a sporting event. And so you kind of lower your guard and let us in and then we sell you on the story. And then all of a sudden the hour's over and we're leaving you hopefully wanting more and glad that you tuned in.
Obviously there's some differences in the American and Japanese styles. Have you had to adjust the way you call matches a little bit to match the style? What do you think your role is in getting over a style which some American fans might not be familiar with?
The style stuff is... well, I tell you, the flying stuff... there are wrestlers in NXT that are a lot like some of the good talents in New Japan. Stylistically. There's nothing so unique that I haven't experienced it somewhere down the road. You know, it's the same thing. Multiple people in a match, quickly identifying talents, and not misidentifying people. Now, the good news is that we're on video tape so we watch this thing in an audio studio. So if I screw up, we stop, and we do a pickup. So we've got a net there. But we didn't really have to do that much.
But yeah, the style's not bad, it's not too much. They use more kicks, they use more parts of their body offensively. They take a lot of different kinds of bumps which are devastating looking. They make simple moves look impressive, like their clotheslines. They're not overdone, but the guys who do them, they make them a big production. The lariat, like that Stan Hansen lariat.
Yeah, like Okada with that Rainmaker. I've seen it a hundred times and every single time I still go "wow"!
That's his money! That's his bank card. And plus his dropkick is a piece of art.
So I didn't really need to adjust there, but you do have to be prepared for kicks and things. They're more active with their feet and legs than some of the North American guys are, but there are some guys on the indie scene who emulate the New Japan guys stylistically. You have Finn Balor in NXT that was a big star in New Japan. There's a feel for it.
Jim Ross is the legendary one in the hat. Josh Barnett is his partner. — Photo courtesy of AXS TV
New Japan has got a really solid product because they allow you time to process what you're seeing. So if the broadcasters are producing really cool lyrics to this music they're making, you generally get a pretty good presentation. That's kind of our goal. We want to call what we see there with those guys and get them over, make everything better. And then get a body of work together so we can refer back to matches in the past, all the time getting you familiarized with the talent. That way you take something away from it, like, 'well he's the blonde-headed Japanese guy.'
I don't know if you noticed but they don't really have tattoos that I've seen. The only markings they have is maybe hair color or hair style. A lot of them are in that six feet range, so there's a lot of sameness, but at the same time they're working really diligently to be unique. That's where the money is, being a unique entity.
I was going to say—and I feel this way about the American indie feds—that it almost feels like a rebirth of the old territory days, where you've got these fluid talent exchanges between organizations and the of some of them. I know that New Japan doesn't neatly map to that old Southern style, but there's something very hard-hitting and straightforward about it.
You got it. There was a feeling I got when I saw the hard-hitting nature of the product that took me back to another place in my career. It felt the same. It was kind of a fleeting moment, the kind of thing you don't get to experience that often. At least I hadn't been experiencing it, because the in-ring product in today's marketplace is inconsistent.
But the good news is, and I'm not making an indictment—all that stuff is reversible. It can be fixed. But it is inconsistent, and I think that the New Japan product, because of how they're trained and managed and how the matches are governed, they're just a little more fundamentally sound than anyone else I've seen on a consistent basis.
Are there any plans for AXS to bring over Wrestle Kingdom or is this strictly from house shows and smaller events?
From what I can ascertain, AXS and their executives, who like I said are wrestling fans—which is so great, because they respect the product and they're knowledgeable—they're open to doing a lot of things with New Japan. But the roadblock isn't AXS, but the slowdown is between New Japan and their television partner TV Asahi. If everyone can get on the same page, I think it makes so much sense that it's bound to happen someday. Now, whether it happens with the next Wrestle Kingdom show, I don't have any idea. One side of the equation, AXS TV, is open to lots of ideas, but it takes two to tango.
Last question. I've tried to deliberately avoid WWE questions because I'm sure you get a zillion of them, but how do you think Nakamura's going to do? Do you think he'll do okay in that WWE sports entertainment style?
Simply put: yes, if WWE doesn't try to reinvent Nakamura. If they don't try to remanufacture his in-ring style, I think he will be a massive star. Hopefully they'll look at him as a very contemporary, modern presentation, meaning let's not get out the face paint. He's not the Great Muta. He's not Great Kabuki where he's spitting green mist. He's not Mr. Fuji where he's throwing salt. Why don't we just let him be himself?
He's worked on this persona for over a decade and it's drawn a lot of money, so why would you want to overhaul it? Now, refining it and making it better, I get. But to completely repackage him would, I think, be a mistake. So if that doesn't happen, I think he's going to be a big hit. If he's stereotyped, they've downgraded from a hit to another guy.