Photo: Ian Mosley/AXS TV

New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to AXS TV tonight (Friday, March 4) at 9:00 p.m. EST with a much different sound.

Mauro Ranallo, the former lead voice of NJPW on AXS TV, has departed for WWE (where he’s doing an amazing job holding down the fort on WWE SmackDown).  AXS TV was able to find a more than suitable replacement in legendary pro wrestling commentator Jim Ross. Good Ol’ JR will be paired with the incumbent color commentator Josh Barnett to present a new season of Japan’s World Pro Wrestling Returns for the American audience.

Tonight’s episode picks up May 3, 2015 at NJPW’s Wrestling Dontaku 2015 event with a semi main event tag match: Kazuchika Okada & YOSHI-HASHI vs. AJ Styles & Yujiro Takahashi and the main event Hirooki Goto vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

Fans of the previous seasons will have an instant familiarity with this new season as the format, look and feel of the show remains unchanged. The differences between Ranallo and Ross are glaring though. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that those familiar with both men know their commentary styles are wildly different.

Where Ranallo excelled in giving tremendous background to each performer and each match, Ross keeps it straight-laced. Sure, there are elements of background in the tag match in particular where Ross and Barnett harped on the fact that Yujiro Takahashi was once a member of CHAOS but eventually turned on them to join with the Bullet Club. This was particularly puzzling as it’s not a big story in New Japan’s canon but also that it took place a full year prior to this event (Wrestling Dontaku 2014). Either way, I appreciated the attempt at giving background to the match and the performers but it felt forced where Ranallo seemed genuinely invested in that history.

Other than a tidbit or two here and there, Ross called the match like it was his first time watching it. It was very much pre-Attitude era Ross commentary which is easy to listen to and get lost in the match but again is a stark contrast to what Ranallo offered.

The chemistry between Barnett and Ross is still uneven but that’s bound to improve in later episodes as they become more familiar with one another. Ranallo and Barnett took awhile to find their stride but once they did they were far and away the best duo in the business. Can Barnett and Ross get to that same level?

Much like Ross’ work on Wrestle Kingdom 9, he seemed far more comfortable in big main events versus faster paced tag or multi-man matches. Multiple times during the semi main event Ross seemed lost as to who was the legal man and what move was being performed. However, in the main event (a much slower paced match thanks to Goto’s style), Ross sounded more comfortable having just enough time to get his point across and getting various periods of rest to tie narratives into the match itself. I expect this to be a trend that continues throughout the season. 

The overaell episode, like Wrestling Dontaku 2015 itself, is underwhelming but passable. If you’re expecting some of the blow away shows you received on prior seasons, you aren’t going to get it. What you’ll get is a breezy hour of solid to above average wrestling which is tough to complain about.

The tag match is fun but largely used as a vehicle to build to Okada/Styles’ next big IWGP Heavyweight Championship match. The main event was rated **** by our very own Joe Lanza when it occurred and holds up quite well. It’s not the knock out, drag out, New Japan main events that some of us are used to but it was solid, hard-hitting and poignant.