For many life long fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the day has finally arrived that we all believed would never come. After years of fifth-generation VHS dubs, becoming experts in the fine art of VCR tracking buttons, RSPW newsgroups, navigating through Japanese iPPVs and websites, the day has finally arrived for NJPW to be broadcasted on cable TV (in English) in the United States. But just like when your favorite indie band breaks through and finally gets their well deserved airplay, there was a bit of worry from the New Japan faithful that the wrestling product so near to their hearts might not be presented in the best possible light. AXS TV did themselves no favor in producing cringe-worthy promotional videos that seemed too light hearted and whimsical for the dedicated New Japan following. Trust us, we are professional wrestling fans and we’ve seen this treatment many times before. It wouldn’t be the first time. We’ve been disappointed before — but that was before Friday night.
AXS TV hit a home run Friday night with their debut of World Pro-Wrestling. Everything from the pre and post match interviews, to the broadcast quality including the English voiceovers from Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett, to the quick and painless commercial breaks, were fantastic. Were there minor stumbles over pronunciation? Yes. Were there timing issues between Ranallo and Barnett? A bit. But to say this wrestling show will be a weekly must-watch is not an understatement.
The match itself is one that most are already very familiar with — Hiroshi Takahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada from the 2013 Wrestle Kingdom show at the Tokyo Dome. I won’t review the match here as it is two years old and the praise from VOW as well as the Wrestling Observer is well documented and well deserved. It is a classic — but can the match be made any better with the added spice of AXS TV and the commentary of Ranallo and Barnett? The answer is “yes.”
We open the show with Hiroshi Tanahashi in studio introducing himself to the US audience. In a very nice touch, this intro and all other interviews on the show are subtitled in English. The interview is simple and effective much like any other great moment in professional wrestling. What Tanahashi does, in less than five minutes, is provide the emotional investment for everyone watching. He wants to prove that he is better than Kazuchika Okada. It didn’t take a snappy, hipster-edit video or involve a storyline with swerves and twists. You could be new to the product and quickly understand why these two were about to battle. Professional pride and a slice of jealousy is all that is needed to fuel the fire. Tanahashi sets the stage:
“Looking back at 2012, Kazuchika was called the “Rainmaker Shock” by February. I regained my reputation in June but once again in G1 Okada won the tournament. I sure was the champion but people always talked about him and it made me bitter. Four months after the G1 he held onto the title and I’d hear people talking about how good he is. But again, it is only natural that the audience roots for Kazuchika. In a title match, the challenger gets all the rooting but it’s not that simple. The group CHAOS being the heel they get cheered by the fans for their baby faces. You could say the same about Shinsuke (Nakamura). Shinsuke and Kazuchika are both good-looking guys. I’m just a guy with short arms and legs representing the traditional Japanese figure. I have something to show for.
“The idea to offer the right to fight at the Tokyo Dome Championship came up for discussion a few years back. It boosts G1’s prestige and gathers attention to the championship. It was a way that seemed to work. I mean, I personally plan to win G1 this year and when I do I sure will ask for the right to challenge. I will say “Schedule a match”! To myself that is – I don’t have an assistant. Maybe the captain ( I hope he means Captain New Japan ) might say “Schedule a match”!
“It’s a dream come true. I get so much support from the fans. The more I pump up the crowd the more I get back from them. The cheering at the Tokyo Dome echoes in the venue but because of that distance the voices come in double and triple. It’s a special feeling you can only experience in a dome.”
At this point, Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett join the broadcast for the first time. Ranallo was a house-of-fire right out of the gate and his energy and passion for the product was non-stop. Yes, there were a few small missteps early and Barnett needed some time to shake of the nerves but these two delivered an announcing performance unlike anything you are likely to hear in a professional wrestling environment. It is a sport to them and the broadcast is treated as such. Ranallo did his homework and provided the history to not only Tanahashi and Okada’s rivalry, he provided background on the IWGP title, strengths and weakness of each wrestler, finishing and setup holds by name-dropping familiar wrestlers, current stars in other promotions and all time legends. Ranallo did everything in his power to help the audience understand what they were watching and how it might relate to a product they were more familiar with. Ranallo did not shy away from mentioning TNA, WWE, NOAH, Pride or any other company if he felt it was going to help give the viewer a better understanding of the match. In fact, there were times where I felt like it might have been too much for a casual fan — all the information started to blur for me and I lived through and watched just about all of his references.
Barnett, at times, struggled to keep up but overall did what very few color commentators do in a professional wrestling broadcast. He actually added to the match. On more than one occasion, Barnett would question a strategy or explain why a certain move is more effective than others.
“He (Tanahashi) keeps leaving his arm out there and Okada is there to take it home.”
“ …I think there are better holds he ( Okada ) could have used there but you do have to make use of what you’ve got.”
“He (Okada) is still a kid and he is going to make mistakes.”
I really liked these tiny, quick lines Barnett would add. He helped to give this a sporting event or a big fight feel as opposed to the pro-wrestling schtick we are so used to hearing. It was small and subtle but highly effective.
Ranallo and Barnett did the simple things well (like getting over the Rainmaker or the High Fly Flow ) added the energy needed to give what was being watched as important, and provided enough background to help put the missing pieces of the puzzle together for the viewer.
After the match, the added bonus of the post match interviews, subtitled in English, helped put the cherry on top. Tanahashi shined here and came across like a star.
“I couldn’t have imagined it a year ago that I’d get this match-up in Tokyo Dome, Japan…and there was a bigger crowd than any year in the past. Today is a special day in so many ways.”
If you are new to New Japan Pro Wrestling, this show is the perfect vehicle for you to catch-up and enjoy the best product available. If you are a lifelong fan, rest easy as this show is well worth your time. You’ve seen the matches but the translated interviews and Ranallo and Barnett’s voiceover add an extra layer of awesome. Set your DVRs, everyone. You have found your new favorite wrestling show.