Jim Ross Talks NJPW, WWE NXT, Commentary and More in Exclusive Interview

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2016

WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross joins the New Japan Pro Wrestling commentary team this March.
WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross joins the New Japan Pro Wrestling commentary team this March.Credit: WWE.com

It's virtually impossible to rank the greatest pro wrestling commentators of all time and not include Jim Ross toward the top of the list.

Ross' commentary career has spanned over four decades, though his most notable run came in WWE from 1993-2014. He had the honor of calling some of the best bouts in the history of the business and is credited as being the voice of the Attitude Era.

It was his distinct style of announcing, however, that made him stand out from the rest of the pack. In addition to focusing on the in-ring action, he exuded phenomenal passion while calling a match and succeeded in getting the viewer as invested in the action as he was.

Now he turns his sights to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he will serve as the play-by-play commentator alongside Josh Barnett for the Friday night show on AXS. Coming off the promotion's major losses of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, there is no better time for Ross to get involved with the organization.

The WWE Hall of Famer spoke with me on the March 15 edition of WrestleRant Radio to talk about his latest venture, how it compares to commentary in WWE, what it takes to be a successful announcer, his involvement with NXT, the potential return of a brand split and more.

Fox Sports broke the news back in January that Ross was headed overseas to do play-by-play commentary for New Japan Pro Wrestling. As a fan of the product, he jumped at the opportunity to work with the promotion:

I like the product very much. I have discovered that AXS TV is a great network to work for. Mark Cuban's staff has been extremely professional, and I like the schedule. Going out to L.A. eight, nine times a year and voicing over a two-day period a cluster of shows, it really fits my schedule and travel preferences.

[There's] a lot of good things, but the main thing is that if I didn't like the wrestling, if I didn't like the product, I wouldn't do it just for the pay day, even though the schedule is nice and the people I work with are good. I have to be able to invest in what I'm calling, and I can do that with this product.

The addition of Ross to the commentary team in NJPW, needless to say, is huge. He should bring a credible voice to an already exciting product, not to mention help lend a bigger presence for the promotion in the United States on AXS TV.

If you aren't watching NJPW on the regular, you should be, and now is an optimal time to start with JR on board. From Okada to Kenny Omega, they have an incredible wrestling roster that is unlike anything else going today, making Friday nights fun again for wrestling fans.

Before signing with AXS TV earlier this year, Ross got his first taste of NJPW when he called Wrestle Kingdom 9 alongside Matt Striker in January 2015. Of course, doing commentary for NJPW's equivalent to WrestleMania was drastically different from calling The Show of Shows itself:

It was an adventure going to Tokyo because of, obviously, the travel and language barrier. I don't speak great English first of all, so me explaining myself to someone who speaks only Japanese can be somewhat entertaining.

We came on the air for Wrestle Kingdom 9, we were not counted on the air, so I started talking because I saw the Japanese commentators talking, so I figured we were on the air. We were there for three hours and never heard from the truck once. I came on the air guessing when to come on. I said goodnight when I thought it was appropriate, and we called the show completely unencumbered and with no communication, so that's how that show went.

You can imagine it's not that way with WWE. They're a lot more hands-on, and the production is a lot more meticulous and thorough.

As you could likely deduce from JR's answer, becoming a commentator is no easy feat, even for a master of the microphone. There is much more that goes into being an announcer than simply calling the action in the ring and reciting what is being said through the headset.

Wrestlers that are equally excellent behind the booth as they are in the ring are far and few between, but CM Punk excelled at it during his brief stint as an announcer in late 2010. Lest we forget, Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon, two of the greatest broadcasters in WWE history, were former stars of the squared circle as well.

Credit: WWE.com

There is a distinct difference, Ross stresses, between being able to tell stories inside the ring and translating that same skill to the announce table. But he believes there are wrestlers on the scene today who could evolve into competent commentators over time:

There should be. What they have to have is the ability to put other talents over and not just themselves.

I've done guest commentary shots for shows and pay-per-views with various wrestlers. They're very good talking about themselves by and large, but the good ones and those that really get great at it are the ones that put other talents over.

Big Show actually has a very good gift of gab, for example. He would be the world's largest broadcaster, for what that's worth. But it's not automatic. Just because they're good in the ring doesn't mean they're going to be good telling stories and putting talents over and positioning talents in a proper way.

One commentator who often doesn't receive the credit he deserves is Byron Saxton, another former wrestler-turned-commentator. He joined the announcing booth in late 2009 as part of the ECW brand and has improved immensely since then.

He has recently seen an increase in his exposure on WWE TV, serving as a color commentator on both Raw and SmackDown. He will only continue to get better as time passes and he thrives in the hot seat on WWE's two biggest prime-time television shows.

Credit: WWE.com

Ross knows a commentator with potential when he sees one, and he offered high praise for the former NXT rookie during our candid conversation:

In WWE, more so than in most broadcasting, look is important, so that's why Byron Saxton has such a presence, [why] he's on both shows. He's getting a tremendous amount of exposure and an amazing opportunity to really break through because he's got a great look, he's intelligent and he's well-spoken.

He needs to be becoming a star right now because he's got an opportunity on two prime-time television shows a week to get over. And he'll get over by getting talent over.

As noted, Saxton spend a considerable amount of time down in NXT both as a wrestler and an announcer from 2011-14. Ross, too, served as a play-by-play commentator for a short period of time in 2012 in what was his last gig as a full-time announcer for WWE.

If anyone has an eye for the future of the business, it's Jim Ross. As a former head of talent relations, he signed some of the most marketable names in WWE today, including Brock Lesnar and John Cena.

Credit: WWE.com

Ross can be heard on WWE's newest DVD release, NXT's Greatest Matches, Vol. 1, calling the premier NXT Championship match between Seth Rollins and Jinder Mahal. He admits to not knowing back then what Rollins, the other up-and-coming stars and the promotion on the whole would evolve into over time:

I enjoyed doing the work down there because it was pure. It was a situation where it was all about the product. The politics were melded away, there wasn't a lot of pretense. It was very straightforward and positive.

The kids were bright-eyed they wanted to learn, their minds were open. They saw opportunity awaiting them, so it was a very refreshing, positive environment to be around.

I'll tell you that in my last several years in WWE, my favorite thing to do was go to Florida and work with the NXT kids, because that's the future of the business. WWE has no investment in their company more important than their Performance Center.

WWE runs on two things: talent and television. Without a stream of new stars being developed, they're in big, big trouble. I had a great time down there and loved being around that environment.

JR had the pleasure of calling some of NXT's first matchups alongside the illustrious William Regal, who is the current general manager and real-life talent scout for the brand. In addition to the newly released NXT DVD and NJPW, wrestling fans can hear his legendary voice in various forms of social media.

As YouTube and Vine have become popular over the years, so has JR for his animated calls from the Attitude Era that non-wrestling fans have used to dub over their videos. It's similar to how Randy Orton's RKO and John Cena's entrance theme have blown up of late.

You would need to be living under a rock to have not seen or heard one non-wrestling video that featured JR, and interestingly enough, these viral videos have resulted in more doors opening for him outside of sports entertainment:

It's lead to interesting opportunities because I actually have calls later today with sports organizations looking for me to do voice overs, so we'll see how that goes. That all spawned from those videos that are out there.

Maybe after all these years I can monetize my voice and those calls, because right now it's just for fun, and it's good fun. I'm flattered by it. I enjoy sending them to my buddies, and they get a kick out of it. We're all having fun with it.

From his critically acclaimed podcast to his one-man shows over WrestleMania weekend, Ross has various exciting projects coming up in the foreseeable future that his fans are guaranteed to enjoy.

However, New Japan Pro Wrestling (on AXS TV on Friday nights at 9 p.m. ET) is the premier place you can catch him honing his commentary craft these days. It will be interesting to see what else the barbecue entrepreneur has in store for the wrestling world going forward.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is a journalism major at Endicott College. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.