I recently spoke with WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross, who will be calling NJPW On AXS TV each week starting this Friday, March 4th. In the first part of the interview, JR discussed his deal with AXS, calling NJPW, replacing Mauro Ranallo on the show and more.
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How did the deal between yourself and AXS TV come about?
"When Mauro Ranallo informed AXS that he was going to take the Smackdown gig in about November, they reached out to my business manager Barry Bloom. At that point, the discussions about me going there ensued. You don't get much done in December in the entertainment world, but we finalized the deal in January. It was a good opportunity. Mauro did a great job there, and he's doing a great job in WWE. I watched the show, and I was a fan of the broadcast with Mauro and Josh Barnett, so I was very familiar with the process. They reached out to my business manager and the dialogue produced fruit, as they say."
You called Wrestle Kingdom 9 last year. Have you been keeping up with NJPW since that time?
"I have. Certainly not as aggressive as I was when I was preparing to broadcast the big event in 2015. More than as a casual fan, I would say. I read about them online, and watch some stuff on TV, on my computer. I don't subscribe to the New Japan World service, because I don't speak Japanese, and they don't have an English speaking sign up page. I have my issues with English, much less Japanese. I got to understand and study for Wrestle Kingdom 9. I'm glad people liked it. You always have that doubt in your mind when you've been away from the game. Is your timing going to be off? I got to see and meet the talents and call their match at ringside. It was about the best relationship builder you can have. Me and Striker had no idea what was going down, we just sat down and called it like a real sporting event. I find that to be very stimulating?"
Is this deal just with AXS, not New Japan?
"I'll put it this way, New Japan is on board with my hiring. New Japan is happy I'm affiliated with their product via AXS. Once AXS made their decision, I think they conversed with New Japan. I'm being paid by AXS. With the relationship between them, they're on the same page. It wouldn't have been good business if AXS hired me, then news filtered back to New Japan like 'Oh, by the way.' I'm not sure what everyone's looking for, but New Japan, AXS and TV ASAI are all working together, but my contract is with AXS TV and I'm being paid by Mark Cuban's company."
I think people are looking at it wondering if it could lead to you calling other New Japan live shows.
"I don't know. Possibly. I learned in this business, you have to never say never. I know it's just been casual conversation about that, but it's been nothing serious. I can't speak for Josh Barnett, but I'd be very interested in traveling to Japan and doing it. They have Matt Striker and Kevin Kelly doing it, and they've been doing an outstanding job. The position isn't really open. To address it just adds fuel to the speculation. It's good for clicks, for dirt, but there's not really anything there. I don't have any idea where it's going to go. I'm not involved in that. That would be an AXS TV deal with TV ASAI and New Japan. It would be those three entities creating an opportunity to enlarge the footprint of the New Japan brand in North America. They all know I'm interested. I'm a team player, I always have been. If a deal is struck that requires me to be in Japan, my passport is up to date."
Do you know if there will be any other changes to the show when your commentary starts in March?
"I'm not aware of any significant changes. I do now at some point AXS is motivated to get the shows more current, but I don't know where they are in that discussion. I don't know where AXS and TV ASAI are with production, man hours that it would take to facilitate that. I think all parties involved would like the show to be more current. It takes a lot of time to turn those shows around to make them production ready for voice over here in the United States. You want to have several shows ready to voice over ina couple day session. It's easier said than done in those respects. I know they want to be more current."
Have you had the chance to talk to Josh Barnett since the announcement was made? I know that he'd been busy preparing for his recent fight with Ben Rothwell.
"Yes, we've talked a few times. We've known each other for years, so it's not like we're strangers. He's very familiar with my work, and I'm familiar with his, so I think it has the potential to be a really strong team. I think it'll exceed solid. We're on the same page, we're ready to roll. I get into LA a day early next week and we'll spend some time together, then we'll go knock out about three shows. Then we can re-evaluate that, then the next day we'll knock out three or four shows. We don't have a gun to our head, we don't have to get it done in 48 minutes. That's what is great about getting in to a post-produced session. We have a net, which means we also have no excuse. The first show should be very good."
Were you surprised by WWE signing Mauro, considering he doesn't fit what they usually go after.
"They haven't been interested in 40 year olds in the past, so from that regard I was. I thought it was as strategic of a hire as WWE's made in a while, a very smart hire. You can hear how smart he is if you watch Smackdown. He's a fresh voice there that's added energy to the show. Mauro did not fit their description of a WWE broadcaster, someone new. He's a good hire, he's going to do a great job. I'm happy for him. Even though he's had great profile gigs, the Mayweather thing, he's still a freelancer. You pick one here, one there, increase your payday, it's still a unique existence. The fact that he's got a regular paycheck coming in and can still do boxing and MMA, it's the best of all worlds. Good things happen to good people, and Mauro's a good person."
Since Mauro has joined, it seems there's been a lot of criticism about other wrestling commentary in general. Do you think that's justified? Is the commentary hurting the product?
"Honestly, I haven't read a lot of editorial that you're mentioning with the negative comments. It's a difficult job, especially in WWE because they have so many masters. They have different platforms that they have to create awareness for on Monday Night Raw in that three hour time period. It's not like it was in the old days where the focus is what you're seeing bell to bell. I think there's a certain segment of the audience that would like to see it go back to that. Sell me all your stuff, but not bell to bell. Can you just focus on the talent, what they're doing, why they're doing it, what it means for the big picture, how it affects WrestleMania. Focus on that, then away from bell to bell, promote all you want. Tell me what's trending, what's going on at WWEShop. It's a tough job because the other aspect is that there are other talents who are working very quick, and you don't have time to tell their story, they don't have time to sell. The shorter the sells, the less the broadcasters can put the talent over.
"There are things that affect today's broadcasters from doing the job that is most popular to today's fans. A lot of it is out of their controlled-- how they're produced, the marching orders they're given. The talents are working a faster pace. It's hard to slow down and tell that story. It makes it challenging. I'm happy I'm going to an organization that's going to let me call wrestling. That's the focal point, the match. These matches are going to be evergreen. You can pull them out of your libraray at any point and watch them. We're not instructed to talk about what happened last week. We get to focus on the game. The reward and the risk of everything that's going on in the ring. I think that fits my wheelhouse. Maybe I don't have it anymore and I don't have enough in the tank, but we'll find out March 4.
Were you surprised by WWE signing AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows?
"No I wasn't at all, because when I got back last year from Wrestle Kingdom 9, I mentioned to both Vince McMahon and Triple H my experience and what I saw. I had AJ Styles on my podcast, and I discovered I had a chance to hire him when he was WCW folded, but he didn't make the cut. I don't think I ever saw him. He seemed to be fine without that. I've always enjoyed his work. He's a good kid, a family man and the type of person you want in your locker room.
"The one I came back raving about was Nakamura, because I felt like he had as much natural charisma and uncanny timing. AJ's timing and agility has a lot of Shawn Michaels' traits. He's effortlessly moving. AJ's right in that conversation with the instinct side. I thought that he could be really good. I found out that a lot of the time that when people say a guy is too small, they've never had their asses kicked by a smaller guy, or they haven't spent much time on a college campus that has a good wrestling program. On college campuses, football defensive linemen don't want to screw with a 160 pound wrestler. It's just not a good exchange, and the big guy's gonna get humiliated more often than not. AJ is good and should have been there before he was hired, but Nakamura is the one I was raving about, because he's so unique.
"Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson are an excellent team, but they're not a new team. They're not something people haven't seen before. I'm not saying they're not going to come into the WWE and make an impact, because they can. If AJ stays healthy, he has the chance to be a main event level talent for the next few years, depending on when his bump card expires, and it will. Hopefully he'll do well and stock some money away.
"Nakamura is unique because he's Japanese, and has a different look, and is long and lean, and speaks English, and has had MMA training, he's a student of the game. He posed for pictures with me, and someone said 'That doesn't happen much when you go backstage and one of the top stars wants a picture with you, does it JR?' No it doesn't, but he's a student of the game. I think he'll be just fine. I don't care what they name him. I understand why WWE wants to own the name. It's not an exact science, but it make sense to do it when they can. I got so many tweets about that. It's not like he's a household word. He's not The Rock. I'm not knocking him. A name tweak isn't going to hurt him. His fans are going to follow him no matter what. I'm not suprised. They were very interested and were tuned in to our discussion about those guys last year. Seeing how they're loading up NXT, these guys might fit right in to the plan. Ironically you have AJ debuting for the Royal Rumble, Gallows and Anderson in the on deck circle, and Nakamura will be a part of NXT Dallas. It's a good thing to shuffle the deck of the roster, it's past due. You can't go with the same people, the same roles without changing things around. For example, John Cena is going to be the incumbent babyface until the cows come home, and that's fine. To make him more relevant and keep him successful, he has to have more dance partners that challenge him. He has to have people that stretch his creativity and physicality. That's how you keep talent fresh without changing their uniform."
Make sure to check back next week for the second and final part of the interview, where JR shared his thoughts on WrestleMania, Triple H vs. Roman Reigns headlining the show, if the authority figure angle has run its course, seeing Sting for the first time, if Sting should wrestle again if he's able and more. You can also check out JR's comments from the interview in the video above about the Undertaker and if he thinks that this will be Taker's last WrestleMania.