New Japan Pro Wrestling returns with their second run on AXS-TV and the Voices of Wrestling staff was treated to a special media-only sneak peek into Friday’s second season kickoff show – this one headlined by the Best of the Super Junior finals between KUSHIDA and Ricochet. You can read our full review of this event from the Yoyogi National Gymnasium here (FYI, we really liked it!) but would Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett’s English commentary be enough for you to give this broadcast a watch? Could they maintain their “Best in the Business” status another season? Five minutes in and you’ll have your answer.
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The show opens with Ranallo giving a brief history of the Super Junior tournament as Taichi makes his lip-sync debut on AXS-TV to take on KUSHIDA in a semi-final matchup . Josh Barnett, never a person to let a one-liner slip through his fingers, gave his thoughts on the Taichi entrance. It’s his first zinger of the new season and he’s already in mid-season form.
“I wonder if he’d look better if (Hiroshi) Tanahashi was behind him air-guitaring the entire time…or maybe air keyboarding it sounds like with this one.”
Ranallo also picks up where he left off last season. In a bit of a shocker, he mentions Taichi’s Internet picture/cheating scandal that would later see Taichi suspended from New Japan Pro Wrestling. It was an elephant in the room, but once again Mauro had the guts to address this instead of sweeping it under the rug. It is these small things that Ranallo does that not only informs and educates newer fans to the product but it also doesn’t insult the fans that have been following the product since the tape trading days.
The energy Ranallo brings is also in mid-season form. Taichi attacks KUSHIDA before the bell and Mauro is right there, with guns blazing, to question the decision. Then it was his call of the Taichi chair-shot on KUSHIDA that will have you out of your seat.
“OH MY GOD! Are you kidding me! In this day in age when we know so much about concussions and head trauma that is something that should warrant an automatic disqualification!”
This five-minute opening sets the tone for the entire match and, as we will find out, the entire show. Five minutes in and Ranallo is not only is hitting his stride, he is back to remind everyone that he is announcer of the year and no one is even close. What is even better is that Josh Barnett is right there with him. In an exchange during the match, KUSHIDA hits the ropes for a moonsault, but Barnett points out that he believes it’s a little early for such a high-risk move. He was right, and Ranallo was there to not only highlight Barnett’s point but also to get over the impact of the missed move. The chemistry between these two is getting better and this is just the first segment on the first show, lads.
Back from the break and the show continues with the second semi-final matchup between Ricochet and Ryusuke Taguchi. Ranallo jumps right in to get everyone caught up with Ricochet and his time with Dragon Gate. Again, it is so refreshing to have a professional wrestling broadcaster not insult the viewer for being a fan. A lazy broadcaster could easily ignore Ricochet’s history with Dragon Gate but right out of the blocks, Ranallo is there to not only point it out but to explain why that “Dragon Gate style” might play a factor in Ricochet’s matches during the BOSJ.
The closing stretch was excellent as Ricochet went for the Benadriller, Taguchi slipped out, Ricochet tried for a kick and missed, and Taguchi went for a Tiger Suplex. Ricochet landed on his feet and was able to connect with the Benadriller. It was another great call from Ranallo that adds another level to a good (but edited for television) match.
We come back from commercial break and we get our first in-studio interview segment – a highlight of last season – with KUSHIDA. Here he discusses his Hoverboard Lock arm submission (this move plays a role during the entire show) and his quarterfinal match against Jushin Liger leading into tonight’s show.
“I have this move called Hoverboard Lock. I started using it in Super Jr. Joining Takada Dojo was the start of my career and there I learned the arm-lock from Mr. Sakuraba. So I was eager to make use of that move in a match somehow. It helped me get through the regular season matches. I believe it was the last official match I fought against Jushin Thunder Liger…it was a singles match and I won using a Hoverboard Lock. After the match, he told me to become the leader of the junior league. If I can, that is. To get that kind of encouragement was so touching. In that way it was a memorable match in my wrestling career. I’ll never forget that match.”
KUSHIDA then went on to discuss Ricochet and the challenge ahead of him.
“I have faced Ricochet in the regular season and had won. Again, with the Hoverboard Lock…but I didn’t think that the same move would work on him twice. Obviously, his physical ability is unbelievably high. I didn’t feel like I was facing a wrestler. He was rather like an Olympic athlete. That’s how it felt fighting him head-to-head. His quality of muscles are like no other wrestler’s. You can also see from his jumps, in terms of athleticism, he is something else. I knew that I had to show him something different from last time.“
As the match introductions are shown, you are also reminded of a small subtle thing Ranallo and Barnett do and it is something that is lost on many broadcasters. They know when to shut up and let the drama of what is unfolding sell itself. As the wrestlers are introduced, the broadcast team takes a back seat and you don’t hear from them until the ring announcer is finished. It would be so easy for Ranallo to step all over the drama that is being built, but he and Barnett stay silent and it adds to the ‘big-fight-feel”.
As the feeling out process between KUSHIDA and Ricochet begins, KUSHIDA drops to the mat to see if he can lure Richochet in. Ranallo, in what might be the line of the night, reminds us all that we may have seen something similar to this exchange in the past.
“…A little Ali vs. Inoki here with KUSHIDA playing the role of Inoki. We don’t really want to see a repeat of that now do we?”
We didn’t get anymore of that but what we did get was a true contender for 2014 MOTY. For those that missed it the first time, you are in for a real treat. For those of you that caught it last year, watch it again. It is an amazing match between two guys in the prime of their career’s each with a little something to prove on a big stage. Add the extra spice of a refreshed and re-energized Ranallo and Barnett and you have yourself one fantastic wrestling program that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch with friends that aren’t fans. In fact, I would use this show if I were to sell my love of pro wrestling onto someone else and convert them into a fan. That might be the highest compliment I can give for a wrestling show. The energy Ranallo serves up during the final stretch is amazing and I truly don’t see how he is going to survive calling the G1 matches later this season. I hope there is a defibrillator in the studio.
The show closes with post-match interviews with KUSHIDA and Richochet. First it is KUSHIDA back in the media area trying to get to his feet followed by Richochet’s in-ring promo and challenge to Kota Ibushi’s IWGP JR. title.
“Damn, I lost. I couldn’t do it. What do I lack? Out of all the junior wrestlers in New Japan, I believe I’m the strongest. It’s not about the length of the match it is about the quality. Bring it on. I’ll climb back to the top for sure. Just wait for next year’s Super Jr.“
After the challenge, it is KUSHIDA back in-studio to wrap things up.
“During the match, I was only thinking about winning. My head was full. I really wanted to win so it was a tough for me to handle the loss. After the match against Thunder Liger, I could feel that the crowd saw me in a different way. That means they had high hopes for me as well as criticism towards me. I had to meet their expectations. I’d do anything to elevate the prominence of the junior league within the New Japan Pro Wrestling and I’d love to bring the Super Junior and the Super J-Cup back to the Ryogoku Kokugikan arena. We’ve all dreamt of it and I’d like to bring it back. I don’t know if it is possible but I wish to make it a championship that will be remembered by the audience. Bit by bit, things are heading into the right direction.“
Final Thoughts: This was, without question, the best hour of televised professional wrestling I have seen in months and it may go down as one of the best ever. For me, this show on AXS-TV is right up there with last season’s Okada / Tanahashi classic that I called the best televised wrestling hour ever. The extra layers that Ranallo and Barnett add to an already excellent match are fantastic. The hour absolutely flashes by and you are left wanting more. I cannot image your DVRs aren’t already set, but if you haven’t done so, stop what you are doing and set it now. This is a show that you not only don’t want to miss, it is a show you will watch a second and third time. It is that good.