Up until this week’s edition of New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS-TV, the broadcasts have generally focused on that week’s in-ring story and the matches themselves. Yes, there have been small Easter eggs that rewarded viewers for watching previous shows, but for the most part each hour focused on that hour and the matches contained. This show was a little different as the program centered around not only the January 2014 Tokyo Dome match between Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito (reviewed here) but also the behind-the-curtain professional pride between some of the top stars in New Japan.

For those unaware, New Japan Pro Wrestling had itself a bit of a challenge going into the 2014 Tokyo Dome event. Shinsuke Nakamura held the Intercontinental Championship and a match was set for him to defend his title against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Okada, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, was set to defend the top title in the company against the G1 Climax winner Tetsuya Naito. So, whether it was a feeling of Naito not being a strong enough challenge, Okada not being a strong and established IWGP champion, or Nakamura and Tanahashi being red hot at this time, a fan vote was held to see what match they wanted as the “main event” of the Dome show. Nakamura vs. Tanahashi won this vote. So while New Japan, Nakamura and Tanahashi did an outstanding job adding prestige to the company’s secondary title, the usual IWGP main event was taking a back seat and professional pride was being bruised.

Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett could have done a straight call of this match and new fans of the product would not have been any wiser to the backstage issues that made this match more spicy. That would have been the easy way. Instead, they didn’t shy away from this aspect and it added an extra layer of intrigue to a match that was already really good. Ranallo’s homework paid off and he didn’t shy away from this elephant in the room. In fact, he looked the elephant square in the eyes and called it out. Also, props need to go out to TV Asahi, who originally produced these shows, for leading the way. Interviews and editing of this show held your hand in this direction and Ranallo didn’t fight it when, honestly, he could have. Outstanding job.

So we open the show with Okada in studio, right out of the gate, sharing his feelings on why he felt the company and the fan’s vote made his match take a backseat to the secondary title.

“Even though Naito won the G1 championship,  I didn’t feel like he had momentum going face to face with him.  I thought, ‘did he really win the G1’?  I had lots more momentum when I got my right to challenge the champion.  But then, I’m on a different level.  I guess he had gone through a lot to get to this point.  It seemed like he was forced the right in which he wasn’t worthy of having.  

The fans voted for the Nakamura versus Takahashi to be the main event.  I had thought that our match would be the main one. What should I sayIt turned out to be a bitter match.  Now that I think about it, its not a big deal.  But when the voting took place, I thought to myself was I really that bad?  I had been a champion for a little less than a year.  Am I not worthy ofI thought, Am I just another Intercontinental Champion?”  Until then, it didnt matter who the challenger was.  IWGP Championship was supposed to be the main event.  I didnt blame Naito for it. It was my own fault.  I wasnt qualified as a champion.   As a results, it made me tighten up. I felt I needed to take it up a notch.

Ranallo and Barnett once again did a solid job on the English commentary. It is a horse that I have beaten to death, but they are the best team in the industry. In the opening build, Ranallo took advantage of this time to throw Barnett a few softball questions that helped Barnett get a bit more involved in the show and helped establish Josh as a guy who had been in that very ring.

“Josh, you have the unusual distinction of having successfully defending a MMA title on a NJPW card right here at ‘The Big Egg’. What did the match against (Yuji) Nagata prepare you to adjust to the larger crowds in your later and more successful efforts in PRIDE Fighting Championships?”

“Being a professional wrestler and being in that ring for New Japan Pro Wrestling – facing people like Nagata, like Nakanishi, like Tenzen, like Liger even at times, it only made me a better fighter in the UFC and in PRIDE.”

This was a perfect time for this and a good use of Barnett. Well done, again.

That is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement. There a plenty of times where Barnett struggles to find the right words and you can almost hear the churning going on in his head as he looks to complete his thoughts, but his words are organic and real and honest. He is there to add his expertise and being more fluid behind a microphone will only improve with time and practice.

As the match moves along Ranallo introduces everyone to that elephant we talked about earlier.

“There really is an unusual pressure on these men tonight. The main event he at Wrestle Kingdom was put up to a fan vote with the choice being this match and Shinsuke Nakamura’s Intercontinental title defense against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Surprisingly, the Intercontinental title match won. As much as the IWGP championship is the reason everyone gets into the business, you have to wonder if somewhere in the back of these two men’s minds that they are itching to prove everyone wrong and steal the show…because for the first time ever the Intercontinental title is headlining the biggest event of the year.”

To put this in context, I watched this broadcast with a casual NJPW/pro wrestling fan and these comments from Ranallo generated a “oh really?” from my casual wrestling friend, had him sit a little higher in his chair, and locked him in. I can promise he’ll be tuned in next week for the IC Title match.

Sadly, a less enthusiastic groan was let out by this same fan after Barnett delivered a doozy of a stinker playing off of Naito’s Stardust Genius nickname.

“Did Naito mention hard times?”

Comedian Jim Norton does a bit on the Opie & Jim Norton Show where Jim becomes a character named “Chip”. I won’t go into great details – Google it, ya’ll – but good lord that was a “Chip” moment.

Another issue that has, at the most inopportune times, hurt this show was where the matches were edited for commercial breaks. AXS-TV is only working with the cards that they have but there was a major moment at the tail end of this match where Naito is desperate to reach the ropes while being trapped in Red Ink. It is dramatic and when Naito finally makes it to the ropes, Ranallo has to downshift and throws it to a commercial. Remember that friend I was with? All he could utter was a “What?”.

Sadly, they did it to him again later when Okada hits his textbook dropkick, goes for a Rainmaker, and is rolled up by Naito for a two count. Okada recovers, hits a wheelbarrow pick up and then cracks Naito with a dropkick to the back of the head. The action is picking up when Ranallo goes to another commercial. My friend dies a little inside.

We return from the commercial break and Okada hits two tombstone piledrivers and a Rainmaker and gets the pin. No joke, it was commercial, three moves, and a three count. Why couldn’t they edit this better? It was a real let down the way this was delivered.

Okada is then shown addressing the media after the match. He didn’t seem too impressed.

“As I said last year, something special is happening this year.  What you just saw was an IWGP Heavyweight match. What you just saw was the true ability of an IWGP Heavyweight Champion.  Don’t underestimate the IWGP Heavyweight. That’s all. I had defended my title in 7 matches up until now.  They were all somewhat tough opponents.  Is that all a G1 champion has to show? The challengers in Tokyo Dome. Is that all you’ve got? “

Naito, on the other hand, gave his “Never Give Up” babyface promo. I feel like you could take these words and use them as lyrics on an inspirational American Idol anthem. Where is Carrie Underwood when your need her?

“I couldn’t win.  I couldn’t make my dream come true.  What’s wrong with being jealous?  What’s wrong with having a dream?  If I can’t get it the first time, I’ll just try again and again.  For me, becoming the IWGP Champion is my dream.  Today was not my day.  But I promise to return to this stage.  And I will have the IWGP Championship Belt on me.  I won’t make my dream be a dream forever.  I will make it come true.   I couldn’t do it today, but next year, as a main event in Tokyo Dome, I will personally pump up the crowd as a champion.  There’s no turning back now.  I don’t care what anybody else says.  The face of New Japan Pro Wrestling is me!”

Ehhhh, I don’t think so there Tetsuya.

The show closes with Okada giving his final word on his Tokyo Dome match with Naito.

“For me, I think that Tetsuya Naito, before he came back was tougher.  I saw that he hesitated at times. He was tough but not that tough.  It’s not like I was competing for who had a more entertaining match.  I was only thinking about my IWGP Heavyweight match.  I didn’t care about their (Nakamura & Tanahashi) result.  I didn’t watch it nor was I interested. It made me want to fight in IWGP again as the main event.  I’d like to win it, and speak though the mic.”

Final Thoughts: Overall, I really liked this show not only for the match but it was made extra special once again with the interviews and the Naito fall-from-grace backstory. I wish something could be done with the editing and commercial breaks because I feel it really hurt the match, but the added juice of the interviews make this a much watch wrestling show.