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Observer Feature: Jim Ross on being the new guy for NJPW on AXS

Jim Ross/Josh Barnett/NJPW

Images courtesy of Ian Mosley/AXS TV

In the world of sports announcing and play-by-play, Jim Ross is as venerated and decorated as they come. After a four decade span calling wrestling for Jim Crockett Promotions, WCW, and WWF/E, "good ol' J.R." is practically synonymous with the sport of the squared circle. Fans connect with Ross on commentary for one reason; he emotionally invests in every call he makes. Deep down, fans still want to believe wrestling is more "sport" than "entertainment" and Ross doesn't call matches like he's reading a script or knows the outcome in advance.

That's part of what makes J.R.'s new gig for AXS TV so intriguing. Fans grew to love the emotional "from-the-gut" reactions of Ross during live events, but starting this Friday for New Japan on AXS TV, he'll have to react to pre-taped matches, calling them in the studio alongside veteran pro wrestler and MMA fighter Josh Barnett. He's also in the rare position of having to replace one of the few announcers who is as emotionally invested in pro wrestling as he is.

Mauro Ranallo sounded like he was going to have a heart attack during any big New Japan match, but his ebullient joy and apoplectic rage were so convincing that WWE recruited him to become the voice of SmackDown.

As we prepare for the debut of "good ol' J.R." for New Japan on AXS TV, Ross took a little time out of his busy schedule podcastingselling sauce, and preparing for his return to boxing commentating for CBS Sports on March 12th to chat with yours truly for Wrestling Observer about the latest chapter in his already historic career.

You've been inducted into both the WWE and Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. You've had opportunities to call boxing and MMA since leaving WWE. What led you to come back to announcing pro wrestling after having already done it all in the sport?

Well, I never stopped loving wrestling. I certainly didn't stop loving being a broadcaster; it's that I didn't have a team to play for. After leaving WWE, there were some opportunities that came about but nothing really fit what I was looking for. I guess I'm an in-ring snob. If I want to invest my time at this stage of my life, I want to really enjoy the product.

After doing (New Japan's) Wrestle Kingdom 9 in January of 2015, I knew that I was going to like the product. Going beyond watching the one hour edited show that I was watching every Friday night on AXS with Mauro and Josh, I got to see the product unedited, live in person at their biggest event of the year - and it hooked me.

You departed from WWE and will now call New Japan on AXS TV, while Mauro Ranallo left AXS TV and New Japan to be the lead announcer on SmackDown. What are your thoughts as your two career paths cross going in different directions?

It's coincidental isn't it? It's very ironic that's how its worked out, but I think we've both got wins. Mauro's living a dream of finally working in WWE, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, and so that's good for him. He's allowed to continue to do his MMA and boxing, so he came out on the other side really well. I think that I did as well. I think I found my gig, I found my home that I hope is in place for years to come.

Josh Barnett and I are really hell-bent on helping build a brand. We want to do more with New Japan on AXS. I don't know what shape that's going to take right now, I don't know how all of this is going to evolve, but I know that from the AXS upper management team, they are very interested in joining New Japan in as big of a way as New Japan will allow.

On this week's debut, you call a tag team match that features AJ Styles and an Intercontinental title match for Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestling Dontaku 2015. Both men are highly touted WWE signings this year. What do you think of the talent exodus?

I'm always happy for guys that want to change their scenery, upgrade, just change - whatever their reason is - and live their dream. I got to live mine for 40 years in the business and I'm still living it, so I'm always happy when somebody gets to do the same thing. WWE made some really good hires, not just with those guys - Shinsuke, AJ, Gallows and Anderson - but hiring Mauro! That's a great hire! So they've done a really good job, WWE being they, with those acquisitions.

I only hope that all four of those guys are allowed to remain essentially intact, and that their characters are not wholeheartedly changed for a whim just to be different.

How difficult do you find it to call matches that are pre-taped? Can you convey the same level of emotion in a pre-taped match where dedicated wrestling fans have already watched it and know the outcome in advance?

All those years working with Bill Watts, I called a lot of matches over in post-production at WCW in the Crockett era, and then afterward, I did tons of voiceovers in a studio. Sometimes you'd voiceover the same match three, four, five times in a week, because it went on different shows and to different markets. I became accustomed to it, so it was not an adjustment for me, it was part of what I had done for years.

Quite frankly when I came to WWE in the early going, I was kind of that third team guy -- there was Vince and Gorilla and then me -- and so I got a lot of the extra voiceover work. You voice over this for the UK, and voice over this for South Africa, and voice over this for Canada - and it's the same show. That was no transition for me at all. I still like wrestling, and I still love broadcasting so letting it all come together in an audio booth was not that challenging at all. It was like riding a bike.

You've been part of many great announcing teams, including a legendary friendship and partnership with Jerry Lawler in WWE. How does working with Josh Barnett compare?

I don't think I could find a more perfect partner than Josh Barnett. He's the perfect broadcast partner for me on this project. He has been calling that brand since the start on AXS, he has competed in New Japan, his first pro match was in New Japan in the main event of the Tokyo Dome against Yuji Nagata. He's had many many fights in Japan so he understands the culture. He has great hold recognition, he understands why holds are being utilized, why they're effective if applied correctly.

You notice the New Japan guys apply a hold, they don't just grab a hold. You hear that slang in wrestling a lot 'Grab a hold,' and literally that's what guys do -- they just grab a hold. They don't apply a hold, they just grab an arm or a leg or whatever. If you use any logic, you can see right through it oftentimes. Guys in New Japan seem to be more fundamentally sound than a lot their peers on a lot of other TV broadcasts around the world, so Josh is perfect to identify these holds in these scenarios.

We would like to have a more realistic sports like presentation, so at least for that one hour, maybe you can let your guard down and let the story take over.

Can the sport of professional wrestling still thrive in an era where the curtain may have been pulled back too far on the machinations going on behind it?

I think it can if the in-ring product is focused on, and if the in-ring product is fundamentally sound and logically booked. Guys with the sensationalistic knee jerk in-ring content has a propensity of forcing people to tune out because what they're seeing is not believable. You see guys crash and burn and not sell. All of a sudden, you eliminate the most crucial emotional element in a wrestling match, the selling, because it exudes all kinds of emotion. Selling becomes the heartbeat of a match and unfortunately a lot of guys are working so rapidly, no matter if they got a four minute match they're gonna do eight minutes of material, that they rush things.

When you rush things in a pro wrestling match, you're bound to leave some fundamental aspects of it out. When that happens the perception of the match begins to erode.


In addition to J.R.'s debut Friday night for New Japan on AXS TV at 9 PM EST, check out a special edition of "The Voice Versus" before that debut where Michael Schiavello interviews him. Here's a preview.