This is a weird time for the wrestling industry. As far as the general public is concerned, World Wrestling Entertainment is the wrestling industry, and, well, depending on what you look at, it’s either not doing so well or seeing slow but steady growth. On the bad side, their flagship TV show is seeing some of its lowest ratings since before the late ‘90s boom period, the wrestler they’ve been trying to make into the next top star is still routinely booed at every major show, and a number of main eventers will be missing next month’s Wrestlemania due to injury. Many fans and analysts are underwhelmed by the expected Wrestlemania card, and with only a month to go the show isn’t sold out yet. At the same time the company pulled in more revenue in 2015 than ever before, thanks to a lucrative TV deal (profits weren’t a record, though), and it’s getting more mainstream press than it probably ever has, with regular coverage at big name outlets like Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated and a weekly interview segment on SportsCenter. So if you only looked at WWE, you maybe wouldn’t know how to gauge the health of the industry. The audience is shrinking, but they’re paying more.
WWE isn’t the entire wrestling industry, though. Outside of Vince McMahon’s world, wrestling might be in its best shape since WCW and ECW shut down in 2001. The top American indie promotion Ring of Honor is as big as it’s ever been, with its weekly TV show airing on many local channels throughout America, as well as on the Comet TV network, which is owned by ROH’s parent company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. ROH now also airs on Samurai TV in Japan, and have a strong relationship with the second largest promotion in the world, New Japan Pro Wrestling. Lucha Underground, with its comic book approach to storytelling, might be the hottest show in wrestling today; now that’s it available through iTunes, perhaps its audience will grow past the small number of viewers who have access to the El Rey network. TNA still exists with a prime time TV show on a national cable station in America and a handful of international television deals. The British independent scene has exploded over the last few years, with Revolution Pro, Insane Championship Wrestling and PROGRESS all making a name for themselves among hardcore American fans.
And then there’s New Japan. As I just mentioned, it’s the second largest promotion in the world today, with a fan base outside of its home country that has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to new exposure through the internet and a weekly show with English commentary on the AXS TV cable network. New Japan rode to new highs on the backs of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada and AJ Styles, and for the last year AXS has been airing their top matches with commentary from Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett. New Japan’s business might be down in Japan over the last year, but its growth in America drove WWE to go on a good, old fashioned raid right out of the end of the territorial days, signing Nakamura, Styles, Ranallo, and New Japan’s top tag team to exclusive deals. Nakamura and the team of Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson haven’t debuted yet, but Styles is already firmly ensconced in WWE’s upper midcard, and Ranallo has been the voice of Smackdown since the start of 2016. On top of these losses, Kota Ibushi, the popular and phenomenally talented Japanese wrestler who was considered a sure thing to permanently move up into the New Japan main event scene, has declined to renew his Japanese contracts and is considered a safe bet to appear in the upcoming cruiserweight tournament that’ll air on the WWE Network. New Japan’s success could lead to its downfall, as it inspired WWE to attack.
As the dust from this raid settled, New Japan found itself in need of new main event talent, and TV Asahi, who produces the New Japan show that airs on AXS TV, needed to find a lead announcer. There aren’t a lot of wrestlers available for one of those main event slots who would get a lot of media and fan attention in America, but there’s one announcer that wasn’t under contract to any other company that would absolutely make waves in America. His name is Jim Ross, he is still the voice of wrestling to a large portion of American wrestling fans, and as of tonight he is officially the new lead play-by-play announcer on New Japan’s AXS TV show.
Tonight’s episode features matches from the Wrestling Dontaku 2015 event, which was held at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center on May 3, 2015. It includes a clipped version of a tag match where Bullet Club members Styles and Yujiro Takahashi take on Okada and Yoshi-Hashi, and then the full, unedited Intercontinental Championship match between Nakamura and Hirooki Goto. Ross is joined by Barnett, an accomplished MMA fighter with pro wrestling experience who took to commentary naturally, and together they’ll be calling the rest of this current season.
Right away, for an American fan unfamiliar with New Japan, it might seem weird that Ross is introduced with no fanfare. The show starts as it always does, with a few clips to run down the night’s matches, before Ross introduces himself and Barnett at the start of the tag match. He might be a draw in America, especially to fans who have suffered through the deplorable state of commentary in WWE for years, but New Japan is about what happens in the ring and not about the guys with headsets who talk about it.
Jim Ross’s unforgettable voice can be a weird contrast with the pageantry and otherness of Japanese wrestling. Even at the height of WWE’s “attitude era,” Ross always sounded like a man who’d be more comfortable calling serious, hard-edged Southern wrestling matches from Bill Watts’ UWF or Turner’s old Techwood Drive studios, instead of the cartoon circus wrestling had turned into. It’s a voice that immediately makes you think of Ric Flair, college football and barbecue, not Japanese wrestlers dressed like real-life anime characters. If you watched the American PPV broadcast of 2015’s Wrestle Kingdom 9, you know that Ross can still call a New Japan match brilliantly, even if he never quite seems comfortable with the wrestlers’ backstories or movesets. He doesn’t have any flat-footed moments in tonight’s episode (perhaps because his commentary was taped well after the match actually occurred) but there are a couple of moments where he seems to struggle with a name or where his call is a few seconds too far behind the action. It’s especially notable during the tag match, where, despite his love for Okada and his unmistakable relish over getting to call a match featuring Gainesville, Georgia’s own AJ Styles, he seems to always be on the verge of calling one of the Japanese wrestlers by the wrong name.
Even if he did make that mistake, it wouldn’t take away from his many strengths. Jim Ross is still a master story-teller, perhaps the best to ever call a wrestling match, and that especially shines through on the commentary for the Goto-Nakamura match. He stresses their history together without overdoing it, and reacts appropriately to all the major moments of the match without ever feeling forced or fake. And although his interactions with Barnett aren’t nearly as smooth or conversational as they were between Ranallo and Barnett, the two do play off each other well as the seasoned play-by-play man and the grizzled fighter speaking from his own lived experience. In time the relationship between Ross and Barnett should grow, and perhaps one day they will mesh as effortlessly as Barnett did with Ranallo.
Ross does a great job, and it’s very different from how Ranallo would have called these same matches. Ranallo’s commentary would slowly escalate alongside the drama of the match, whereas Jim Ross punctuates his steady tone and sturdy delivery with occasional outbursts of excitement, as needed. Ranallo’s style better reflects the Japanese style of wrestling, where matches start slowly and build to a fever pitch, but Ross’s will be more familiar to American audiences. It’s how he’s been calling matches for over 30 years.
As a regular viewer of New Japan’s AXS TV show, I will miss the well-oiled machine that was the Ranallo-Barnett tandem. They were the best wrestling commentary team for a generation, at least since the early days of Ross’s tenure with Jerry Lawler in the then-WWF. Jim Ross’s commentary is serious and thoughtful—this isn’t the cartoon character that McMahon tried to turn him into—and in time he’ll no doubt be as comfortable with Barnett and New Japan’s roster as Ranallo was. For now it’s just a treat to hear him back on television, to hear the iconic wrestling voice of our time back in action on a regular basis. The fact that he’s calling what is legitimately the best wrestling in the world is just a bonus.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. When he was a kid he met Jim Ross in the Omni parking deck in 1989. He’s on Twitter @grmartin