Tonight marks the return of WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross to a regular wrestling gig.
In an interesting swap, JR is replacing new SmackDown play-by-play man Mauro Ranallo on AXS TV's New Japan Pro-Wrestling, an hour-long show which re-packages matches from New Japan's recent past with English commentary, in a way that makes it easy to get to know and follow along with feuds, stories and performers - whether you're new to the promotion or not.
The new episode, which will premiere at 9PM Eastern tonight (Mar. 4), features two matches from the May 3, 2015 event at Fukuoka Kokusai Center:
Kazuchika Okada & Yohsi-Hashi (CHAOS) vs. AJ Styles & Yujiro Takahashi (Bullet Club)
Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Hirooki Goto for the IWGP Intercontinental championship
If you've never seen an episode of the show, this is a fine introduction. There's bookend interview segments with one of the main figures from the episode, shot recently allowing them to reflect back to the match and the story at the time. In this case, those feature the Wild Samurai, Goto.
Much like a complete New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) event, there's a tag match opener, and as is the case for this show, it usually has ramifications for an ongoing singles program. Here it's the ongoing rivalry between Okada and Styles, who at this point last summer was rubbing the fact that he had taken the IWGP Heavyweight crown from the Rainmaker in Okada's face every chance he got.
The first match is edited to fit into about fifteen-to-twenty minutes, leaving the remaining time for an entire bout from later on the same card. Tonight, that's Goto's match with IWGP Intercontinental champ Nakamura, which is much more about the challenger being respected as an equal by the titleholder than it is about the belt. Typically, post-match promos or question-and-answer sessions follow both contests, and a video package leads into the main event, catching you up on the story.
JR's debut starts a little rough, almost like Ross isn't used to having to talk about just the match in front of him. His early remarks come across like canned video game commentary - repeatedly mentioning Okada's potential or calling Takahashi "the traitor" a million times.
But once business picks up, JR settles into the groove, and there's nothing quite like hearing the Oklahoman react to a stiff strike or an unexpected counter.
For fans who've been following this series on AXS, it's largely just a matter of adjusting. Ranallo felt like he was guiding us into the world of NJPW, while JR is discovering it alongside you. It's not a bad thing - actually, it's a great fit considering the goal of using Ross is to get more mainstream/WWE-centric fans to check out the show. And, of course, Ross' grasp of history and psychology is second-to-none, so it's not like he's not bringing a lot to the game, even if he's still getting familiar with the players.
Josh Barnett is the glue, making the transition between play-by-play men less jarring, and politely taking a little more responsibility for storytelling than he had with Mauro. So far, it's all very professional and respectful, but there are a few flashes of humor toward the end of the main event which give us an idea of what their chemistry might be like when they've had more time to work together.
The 38 year old "Warmaster" is still a semi-active pro wrestling performer and mixed martial arts competitor, but even part-time, he's become one of the best color commentators in the business. Hopefully, working with another great like Ross will hone his skills even further, expose him to a larger audience and prepare him for a bigger role at a wrestling announce desk in the future.
The other advantage to JR's debut, for those who may be checking out this series for the first time to hear the Oklahoman call wrestling again, is a chance to check out the man who will debut in WWE at NXT's TakeOver: Dallas show next month.
I wouldn't say this match is an all-time great performance by Swagsuke, but it's a good entry point to his undefinable charisma and the Japanese strong style with which he's synonymous. There's no language barrier to the story with Nakamura - you only need to see him step to Goto and stare over his head to understand their whole program.
Definitely check out, or check back in, with an hour of pro graps that slips through the cracks with so many televised and streaming options available to us in 2016. The wrestling is always top notch, and the commentary & production makes it interesting to revisit even if you watched it when it first ran in Japan.
To find AXS TV on your cable or satellite system, check here.