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A Warm Bath From Afar: Jim Ross Finds An Old Groove In New Japan

In Charlton Heston’s baritone rasp, I recall him saying as Moses, “I am a stranger in a strange land.” Jim Ross is another distinct voice, imitable and credible alike. Wrestling fans of the last two generations know the voice, the shouts, the intonations, and the exclamations. Our fanciful daydreams of ourselves becoming a World Champion usually have Ross’ fiery call in the soundtrack. Who better than Jim Ross to narrate the story you’ve written in your mind?

The ‘strange land’ line parallels over to Ross’ appearance this past weekend for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “WrestleKingdom 9”, with Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling aiding in an American airing. To present the import to an American audience, Ross was paired with former WWE colleague Matt Striker in hosting the Japanese equivalent of WrestleMania.

For me, Ross doing what he does (or at least, once did) better than anyone else in the wresting world once more was just as enticing as another round of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada. Some will claim that the heat is off of Ross’ fastball, not the harshest of claims. Listening to the once-great Pat Summerall dodder away and make horrid mistakes during NFL games filled me with as much sadness as listening to Marv Albert perform a grade below his old standard in today’s NBA action.

In spite of that, knowing that Ross hasn’t been a full time wrestling announcer in over five years didn’t diminish from my excitement any. Not even having Ross out of his element, into the ‘strange land’ that is the sleek and slick New Japan product, filled me with any doubts about how he would perform on Sunday.

Oh, there were mistakes, yes. During the main event, Ross struggled with the name “Kazuchika” at one juncture, with a knowing and polite Striker helping him through. Ross acknowledged the difficulty with his dry ‘aw, shucks’ aplomb and continued on, a humble concession.

That hardly mattered when Ross settled into an old groove: the sense of impending danger. With Okada reeling behind the barricade closest to the ring, an equally war-worn Tanahashi ascended the turnbuckle and projected himself quite a distance with his High Fly Flow over the railing. Ross was a disembodied voice, but in body, you sense his mouth was agape at Tanahashi’s daring leap.

“My God, ladies and gentlemen! Can you believe what we just saw?!” offers Ross, sounding like more fan than curator. Hints of the familiar Ross broke through, particularly when Okada leveled Tanahashi with his patented Rainmaker clothesline, and a frenzied JR insisted that a title change was seconds away.

Was that salesman Ross or “I want to believe?” Ross? It was Ross’ first time calling a wrestling match without the looming spectre of the notoriously controlling Vince McMahon hanging around. There were many instances where the 63-year-old announcer allowed for silence, to take in the breathtaking action.

There were also times in which Ross flipped through the history book, as is his custom. The Tanahashi/Okada rivalry, according to Ross, was comparable to Brisco vs. Funk, Flair vs. Steamboat, Austin vs. Rock, and Michaels vs. Undertaker. That’s the salesman, putting over an already incredible product with his own seal of approval. If Ross ever compares anything you’ve done to something Jack Brisco’s done, that’s as high of praise as he could muster.

Other times, Ross deftly acknowledged the lack of Vinnie Mac by offering veiled jabs, such as during the IWGP Intercontinental Title bout with Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi, which rivaled the main event as world-caliber fare. Ross championed the title belt and its value, rhetorically asking why wrestlers would *want* to fight for a belt if it had no meaning at all.

Ross is a businessman with over 40 years experience in wrestling. While he knows how ‘the sausage is made’, that hasn’t dulled his belief that a title belt should mean something. Hearing his impassioned speech in the middle of Nakamura and Ibushi’s kick-and-knee battle of wills goes a few hops and skips toward explaining the acrimony between he and McMahon, and the vision that necessitated humiliating the dissenting Ross needlessly from time to time.

The aging Ross sounds more and more like Gordon Solie, one of his many mentors. The smooth-yet-clipped delivery underscores the stories, occasionally losing control in utter disbelief. It’s the most credible voice one can have in wrestling, and the easiest to love: the knowledgeablesoul who is smarter than his audience, but believes just as much as they do.

When Okada landed that first Rainmaker, Ross and I shared the genuine belief that Tanahashi was done for. It’s the bond that Ross shares with more than just myself, and it’s the reason fans clamor in futility for WWE to bring him back today. I can’t speak for the man, but I’d feel bad listening to him try to sell me on Grumpy Cat or Kathie Lee Gifford or whatever else WWE presents in 2015 to prove that they’re ‘not wrestling’.

Ross deserves a show like WrestleKingdom 9, and WrestleKingdom 9, in New Japan and GFW’s reach to a new American audience, deserves Ross. The modern WWE deserves Michael Cole, an automated talking head that will sell whatever Vince tells him to sell, with energy as over-processed as cat food. At least when Jim Ross sold that similar bill of goods for McMahon, his sharper instincts dulled their metallic clang.

What we got this past weekend was the metamorphosis of Jim Ross into his most comfortable form. There was no Monday night show to hype up, no blocking out of the match at hand to talk about an off-screen main eventer. Ross may not have been wholly familiar with everything he was seeing, but Striker did the Ric Flair/broomstick job to help him along (not to compare Ross to a broomstick, but Striker’s commentary work since leaving WWE proves how gifted and instinctive he really is). Striker didn’t carry Ross, but rather he kept the road illuminated for him. Ross eventually found his way through every match, every moment, coming out in one piece.

That’s the joy I took from WrestleKingdom. Jim Ross was presented as Jim Ross, a grizzled, time-tested announcer who found a product he could enjoy with his most youthful wonderment. Because he believed, I too believed.

What an irony. Jim Ross had to travel halfway across the globe to feel more at home than he’s felt in so many years.

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Justin Henry

Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.

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