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AXS TV's New Japan Pro Wrestling is the show for which wrestling fans have been waiting

Top - Kazuchika Okada; Bottom - Hiroshi Tanahashi
Top - Kazuchika Okada; Bottom - Hiroshi Tanahashi
courtesy of AXS TV and TV Asahi Corporation

My knowledge of puroresu, or Japanese pro wrestling, is fairly limited.  I watch buzzed about matches online, and do a little digging on guys that come across the Pacific to do shows with Ring of Honor and other promotions, but I'd never classify myself as more than a casual fan of any of the companies in Japan.

I am a pretty typical passionate American pro wrestling fan.  WWE is my bread and butter, both because I was raised on it and it's the most easily accessible game in town.  From that base, I've branched out and sampled everything from Kaiju Big Battel to my local mixed martial arts promotion (shoutout to John Rallo and Shogun Fights).

Point being, I'm squarely in the target audience for AXS TV's newest addition to their AXS Fights line-up on Friday nights - New Japan Pro Wrestling.  The hour-long 13 episode series will feature past bouts from New Japan shows with new English language commentary from Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett, both seasoned MMA and pro wrestling hands - the former as a commentator and the latter as a competitor/performer.

(Check out interviews with both men talking about New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and their approach to this new show: here for Ranallo and here for Barnett)

In my experiences across the combat sports/sports entertainment spectrum, I've found stuff I liked and stuff I didn't.  But I'm not sure I've found a show that blended the things I like about MMA and more realistic pro wrestling matches with the bombast of good sports entertainment better than AXS' new show.

As a perk of having my name plastered all over a popular website, I got the opportunity to watch a screener of the third episode of New Japan Pro Wrestling, a one match show which focuses on the IWGP Heavyweight title match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada from April, 2013's Invasion Attack show.  This episode will air next Friday, January 23rd, as part of two episode block on AXS TV.

The show opens with a seated Okada talking about his history with Tanahashi (a history still being written, as they recently main evented Wrestle Kingdom 9, the first NJPW show to televised on pay-per-view (PPV) worldwide and with English commentary).  The interview is in Japanese with English subtitles, and feels like the kind of piece you would get from a NFL pre-game show where Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks talks about facing the rival San Francisco 49ers.

From there, it's right to the ring.  The production and presentation is no frills; it's reminiscent of an ESPN Friday night boxing card.  There's a brief intro graphic and music and then we're in the arena for introductions.

Commentary is probably going to make or break this show, since you can find the matches online via the New Japan World service (or for free if you're not into the whole legal thing) with Japanese commentary any time, any where.  Ranallo and Barnett do add to the product - most of the time.

The general theme is in sticking with the spirit of the interview with Rainmaker Okada that opens the show.  Strategy, tactics and pyschology are emphasized throughout, and that works very well.  Barnett is an asset here especially, since he can not only explain why something works or is painful, but provide examples from personal experience.

Of course, it helps that the action is choreographed so well that you don't need someone to explain to you that the champion, Tanahashi, is targeting Okada's arm so he can't hit his lariat finisher.  That aspect of the match from this show illustrated another area where the announcers were helpful, and that was in providing guidance on heel/face alignment and translating the crowd's reaction.

Japanese audiences approach pro wrestling and MMA very differently than North American and European ones, so some of the cues we take from a live crowd aren't present here.  Both men filled in the gaps nicely during the screener episode.  If anything, I'd like to see them do a little more cultural interpretation, at least as it pertains to understanding the story being told in the ring.

An area I think they could dial back a notch is in explaining the history of the performers.  A little goes a long way, and especially with a long rivalry like Tanahasi/Okada, things can get confusing quickly, especially for WWE fans who aren't familiar with much past Rumble win = Mania shot.  There's not enough time in an hour to explain why the G1 Climax tournament matters or how the New Japan Cup factors into booking and call the action in the ring.

Ranallo and Barnett's styles mesh well in the Jim Ross/Jerry Lawler or Mike Goldberg/Joe Rogan sense.  Mauro is more rapid fire, calling the action and building the enthusiasm when the ringwork calls for it.  Josh is more of a goof, and is prone to unintentional comedy (he talks about a submission move twisting the "vertebrae in your face"), but he knows when to dial it down and focus on the wrestling story.

After the match, which I had seen before and still was completely sucked into, the show closes with an in-ring promo from the winner and his manager with an appearance setting up his next feud, some footage from a press conference and more of the sit-down promo that opened the broadcast.  Anime, Godzilla and kung fu flick fans who hate dubbing will be happy to know that this is all in Japanese with English subtitles.

In all, I can't think of anyone who watches pro wrestling that wouldn't find this show a worthwhile and entertaining hour of your time.  If you only watch Raw for comedy skits, you can probably give it a pass.  Everyone else is going to be thrilled to be treated with respect while watching two gifted athletes paint a picture in the ring - even if you already know what the completed artwork looks like.

New Japan Pro Wrestling premieres tonight on AXS TV at 9PM Eastern time with Tanahashi and Okada's Wrestle Kingdom 7 showdown from earlier in 2013 - while it is a "greatest hits" show, the series will present angles and feuds chronologically, so previous episodes will combine with the commentary to build the story.

Find out if you get AXS TV here.

Who's watching?

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