Slobberknockers and Strong Style: Jim Ross on NJPW's Growth and WrestleMania 34

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 23, 2018

Credit: WWE.com

Jim Ross' love for pro wrestling hasn't waned.

Not after 40-plus years in the business. Not after adding emotion and narrative layers to countless matches for Mid-South Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling, WWE and now New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW).

He talks about the mat game today with a buzz in his voice that one might hear from an archeologist discussing a new species of dinosaur.

The Hall of Fame announcer is currently the English-language play-by-play announcer for New Japan on AXS TV. Ross sits alongside former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett at the commentary desk where he calls bouts featuring stars like Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Kenny Omega and Minoru Suzuki.

Jim Ross and Josh Barnett.
Jim Ross and Josh Barnett.Credit: Karen Tran/AXS TV

His tenure with Japan's top wrestling promotion has him front and center for a steady supply of quality in-ring clashes.

"There's not a week that goes by that we don't have some match that's a really damn good match," Ross told Bleacher Report.

NJPW is sure to live up to that bar on Sunday at Strong Style Evolved in Long Beach, California, airing on AXS TV and NJPW World. In one of the featured contests, the reunited duo of Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega will take on The Young Bucks—one of the world's hottest tag teams.

"There's no reason it shouldn't be awesome," Ross said. "They will go way beyond the comfort zone in taking bumps that are quasi-insane."

New Japan has made a clear effort to get a foothold in the U.S. market of late. It has partnered often with Ring of Honor, created its own United States Heavyweight Championship and put on the G1 Special in USA event last July, also in Long Beach.

A crackling energy surrounding the company has increased attention from American fans, and Ross is witnessing it all from his familiar spot at the announcing desk.

      

New Frontier for New Japan 

Why does NJPW continue to grow? The answer isn't complicated.

Ross laid out the two most important factors in building a fight-based brand: "The key to it is talent and television. In that order. Talent is everything."

And NJPW has that asset in surplus. Okada is among the best storytellers in wrestling history. Each of his IWGP world title defenses is a must-watch event. Add Omega, Naito, Suzuki and the rest of the roster, and there's plenty of reason for American fans to tune in.

A number of these men are in their primes, too.

IWGP heavyweight champ Jay White is 25. Evil of Los Ingobernables de Japon is 31. Sanada and Okada are both just 30.

Good Ol' J.R. is also a fan of New Japan's approach in the ring.

"They have more old-school theories in their booking," Ross said. "Anybody can lose to anybody else, by and large, if the other guy gets to use his finish."

He used Sanada challenging Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at New Beginning in Osaka as an example. 

"At various places in that match, it could have gone either way," he said. "That's good ring psychology. That's good execution."

Sanada in action against Kazuchika Okada.
Sanada in action against Kazuchika Okada.Credit: Asahi TV/New Japan Pro Wrestling

It has helped NJPW, too, that it has struck a deal with a company Ross called "a hell of a television partner." The veteran announcer reflected on his days on TBS, where programming issues, often related to the Atlanta Braves schedule, could impact the wrestling program.

"It was sometimes a roll of the dice about when your show was going to air," he said.

AXS TV, on the other hand, has been consistent, making Fridays fight nights week in and week out. And NJPW's TV deal is, in Ross' mind, vital to the promotion expanding its reach.

"You can't grow that brand to the level they want to grow it in North America off the New Japan World digital channel. It won't work. You're not there yet."

      

Strong Style Explored

New Japan's crop of talent compares favorably to some of the best Ross has seen in his long career. But he's not ready to rank it above some of the rosters from the Attitude Era or the blue-chipper-heavy class from the early 2000s.

WWE signed Batista, John Cena, Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar to its developmental system in the early 2000s.

That's a tough class to outdo. Each of those men has reached megastar status and is destined for the Hall of Fame. 

"I have no doubt that some of these kids working in New Japan now will have an opportunity to do the same thing," Ross said. 

That's if they remain healthy, which is tough to do with with the brutality of the sport. The wrestlers crack each other with headbutts, smash their spines into the ring apron and deliver kicks that rattle jaws.

"Sometimes their style is not conducive to long careers," Ross said. "It shortens your shelf life. They're young and hungry. You can't pull them back more often than not."

It's a smashmouth, full-tilt approach to pro wrestling known as "strong style" that has long been a tradition in Japan. Gaijin (non-Japanese wrestlers) have been coming back from The Land of the Rising Sun with bruises to show and stories to tell about the increased physicality there for decades. And Ross, while he has his concerns, can't help but be a fan of it.

"It's entertaining as hell to call," he said. "It's great to watch."

Some of the strong style will be on display during New Japan's latest trip to California when the reunited team of Ibushi and Omega go to work against The Young Bucks.

The Golden Lovers just recently realigned after a four-year hiatus. The pair, whose relationship is implied to be romantic, has standout chemistry, a big part of why they have been so compelling together.

"Their bond is organic and real," Ross said. 

Strong Style Evolved was also set to feature Rey Mysterio making his NJPW debut against the iconic Jushin Liger, but an arm injury is keeping Mysterio out of action. Instead, Liger will clash with Will Ospreay. 

Ross had high praise for Liger, who he labeled an all-time great. "It's hard to say that Rey Mysterio and Jushin 'Thunder' Liger aren't two of the very best cruiserweights/junior heavyweights in the history of the business," he said. 

      

On WrestleMania 

While Ross has spent a good chunk of time breaking down the Japanese scene recently, he remains in tune with what WWE is cooking up. The company where he spent much of his career has put together its biggest card of the year, and the Oklahoman has marveled.

The WrestleMania 34 lineup set for April 8 reminds him of the best editions of the marquee pay-per-view to date.

It includes a rematch of a bout he called on a New Japan card—AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura. And Ross believes the sequel will deliver.

AJ Styles is set to defend the WWE Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania 34.
AJ Styles is set to defend the WWE Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania 34.Credit: WWE.com

"They have incredible, incredible chemistry," Ross said. "I have extremely high expectations for that. I hope people come out of that and say, 'My God, I didn't know Nakamura was that good. I didn't know Nakamura is that physical.'"

Ross added that on the fluid list of the best bell-to-bell wrestlers, The Phenomenal One is on top at the moment.

"AJ Styles, in my view, is the top in-ring performer in the business right now," he said.

He had barrels of praise for Charlotte Flair, as well. In his eyes, The Queen, who will face the undefeated Asuka for the SmackDown Women's Championship at WrestleMania, is a gifted natural athlete, skilled storyteller and reminds him of one of the biggest names in the industry. 

"Charlotte Flair is the Hulk Hogan of women's wrestling," Ross said. "She's the present and the future."

It's hard to argue with him. She's been a centerpiece for a surging women's division with excellent showings against Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and others. 

Thanks to a massive signing, a new potential opponent is now on the horizon: former UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.

Ross was intrigued by Rousey's entry into the WWE world beginning with her WrestleMania 31 cameo alongside The Rock.

"I thought it was incredible," he said. "There was something there. It had it."

WWE followed that up by bringing in Rousey as a full-fledged Superstar this year. She's set to debut at WrestleMania tagging with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.

"It was just a brilliant move by WWE to sign Ronda Rousey," Ross said. "I've had people stop in airports when I'm wearing my black hat to say hi. Now they want to talk about what I think about Ronda Rousey signing with WWE. That's worth a lot of money, man."

      

Jersey On and Ready to Go In

Ross wants to be a part of that huge night. The 66-year-old has stayed productive since parting ways with WWE in 2013.

He has remained a contributor to the business he's called home since the '70s in a number of ways. Aside from calling NJPW contests, he's hosted a podcast which is set to return soon, and he penned his autobiography, Slobberknocker: My Life in Wrestling.

Writing the book was a tough process beyond the usual creative slumps.  

"I lost my competitive edge," Ross said. "My first writing partner died of a heart attack. My wife got killed in a vehicular accident. It got to be real arduous to get to the finish line."

In the end, he did. And the book's success has since exceeded Ross' expectations. Critics have lauded it. He's also currently discussing selling the movie rights to the story.

He has put on a series of events dubbed The Slobberknocker Sessions where he reminiscences and interacts with fans. On April 6 during WrestleMania weekend, he'll host another one in New Orleans with just 100 fans in attendance. The night will feature a Q&A, photo ops, an autograph signing and a chance for the announcer's fanbase to mingle with him. 

"It's more personal," Ross said. "It's a lot of fun in that regard. It's like we're sitting around having a beer."

Should WWE want to bring him aboard to call some of the WrestleMania action, he'd be eager to jump in.

"I'm hopeful that I'll get an assignment," he said. "I hope to be just like Ricky 'Wild Thing' Vaughn on Major League the movie. Play 'Wild Thing' and I'll come out of the bullpen and do one more match. Try to get three outs before I screw it up."

Ross' fervor for wrestling still burns. Whether talking about how many top-notch women WWE has on its roster or his ability to zero in on the in-ring story at NJPW, it is clear he's still giddy about what he does.

Like a wrestler in the back with his boots tied and gear on, the Hall of Fame announcer will be ready come WrestleMania. 

"I hope that my number is called," Ross said. 

           

Jim Ross is a WWE Hall of Famer and a play-by-play announcer for NJPW. He is the author of Slobberknocker and the host of The Ross Report.

Quotes obtained firsthand. Ryan Dilbert is the WWE lead writer for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @ryandilbert.

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