Marc Cuban's AXS TV is set to air New Japan Pro Wrestling’s signature Wrestle Kingdom 12 over the next six weeks.

By Justin Barrasso
January 06, 2018

AXS TV is set to air Wrestle Kingdom 12 over the next six weeks, with airings every Friday at 8pm ET, beginning tonight with a special three-hour prime time Saturday viewing. AXS chairman Mark Cuban and WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross each provided insight on the monumental event, as Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look into the role of UFC great Josh Barnett on the New Japan broadcast.

New Japan is coming to America.

Beginning tonight at 8 p.m., AXS TV will air the top four matches from New Japan Pro Wrestling’s signature Wrestle Kingdom show that took place this past Wednesday at the Tokyo Dome.

Mark Cuban, the chairman of AXS TV, is grateful for the support of the wrestling community, which has come out in droves to watch New Japan every Friday night on AXS.

“At AXS TV, we understand how incredible NJPW is,” said Cuban. “And the response has been amazing. Our audiences keep growing week to week.”

AXS TV went above and beyond financially to secure the rights to air Wrestle Kingdom 12. Wrestling fans are often dismissed to instead reach a more mainstream following, but Cuban is fighting for AXS TV to be a place that wrestling fans can call home.

“It takes time to grow a promotion in the states,” explained Cuban. “But when you have such an incredible spectacle of amazing athletes, it’s worth investing the time and money to give the best wrestling fans in the world, NJPW fans, a night to call their own. That’s what Friday nights on AXS are all about.”

Cuban has spared no expense in his broadcast team, including hiring the legendary Jim Ross as his lead play-by-play man. The 66-year-old Ross made his broadcast debut in 1974, yet his voice remains as timeless as ever on the air. Ross is in many ways the Vin Scully of professional wrestling, and he now adds another Wrestle Kingdom to wrestling portfolio filled of WrestleManias and Starrcades.

“Hours after Wrestle Kingdom ended, we were in the voiceover room kicking ass,” said Ross. “I absolutely didn’t watch any of the matches ahead of time until I saw them there and began narrating. The only thing better would be to be there for Wrestle Kingdom, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. That’s the only thing bigger than what we’re doing right now.”

Beside Ross in the broadcast booth is mixed martial arts legend Josh Barnett. While Barnett is not as readily known to wrestling fans as some of Ross’ past on-air partners, like Jerry “The King” Lawler or Paul Heyman, he is more than merely a virtuoso of pain inside the UFC cage.

Barnett is a New Japan expert, sharpening his teeth with the company as a 25-year-old in 2003 and learning the craft in a way that is now viewed as antiquated.

“I still believe in kayfabe,” said the 6-foot-5 Barnett, who holds an MMA record of 35-8. “The less people know, the better off they are. The more you expose the business, the more you remind people it’s predetermined, which is a detriment to an emotionally-involved product.”

Barnett is particularly fired up to call Wrestle Kingdom 12.

“I love wrestling and view it as a legitimate sport,” said Barnett. “I want to feel like it is real, I want you to taste the intensity.

“I don’t think there is that much of a difference between fighting and wrestling. Fighting is the root of wrestling. You’re supposed to be portraying combat. If you think wrestling isn’t fighting, then that’s bulls---. That’s the whole premise: fighting.”

Cuban believes that Barnett adds authenticity to the New Japan broadcast on AXS.

“Josh has a long history as a champion and his commentary is always spot on,” said Cuban. “I think he is going to have a lot of fun with New Japan Pro Wrestling and viewers are going to love him.”

Barnett’s authenticity will be on display later tonight as AXS TV airs four matches from New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestling Kingdom 12—Cody Rhodes vs. Kota Ibushi, Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White, and Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito—at 8pm ET.

His style, however, is not always admired or applauded. The Young Bucks, who are the wildly popular tag team consisting of Matt and Nick Jackson, have both voiced disapproval of Barnett’s announcing.

Barnett explained that he and the Bucks share a vastly different wrestling philosophy.

“The Young Bucks operate from the perspective that it’s all fake,” said Barnett. “I don’t think they treat wrestling as if it’s real. I think they look at it from a different perspective; that everybody knows it’s a work. There is a lot of winking and finger-pointing to the audience.

“It’s just a philosophical difference. The Young Bucks are definitely highly talented individuals, and very charismatic and smart, with lots of physical gifts. But they would walk through a match to the media, which to me is sacrilege. Antonio Inoki would have kicked the sh-- out of me over something like that, and that’s how I was brought up.”

Barnett recalled a night of drinking in during his New Japan arrival in 2003 when a group of baby faces and heels all wound up at the same drinking establishment in the Japanese town of Sapporo.

“We started a fight in the bar just so one group could go in and one would leave,” said Barnett. “It was important that the public didn’t see us as pretending. We wanted to keep them in the belief that what we did was real.”

Barnett was part of a group feuding with the Makai Club, who were already at the bar with drinks in hand. Members of the Makai Club launched a few trays of cocktail peanuts at Barnett as he walked in, and a table was quickly overturned to ensure that everyone in the establishment believed in the legitimacy of pro wrestling.

“Then everything got ramped up,” recalled Barnett. “One group jumped right into the other, people were getting chucked around, getting hit and thrown. There were referees at the bar there that broke us up, the Makai Club left, and the beer tasted pretty good to us after.

“That’s how I came into wrestling. I’m carrying the legacy and lineage of those who trained me, and the Young Bucks have a different philosophy.”

Jim Ross believes that Barnett’s strengths are with the history, heritage, execution, and technique of New Japan Pro Wrestling, as well as that Barnett’s style perfectly suits the mission they are working to accomplish.

“Josh is the perfect partner for me with this brand,” said Ross. “We’re not here to do comedy. We’re not here to plug next week or discuss what’s trending. We don’t have a pay per view or live event to sell. We focus on the match and call the action, that’s what we do.”

Barnett disdains the idea that pro wrestling is fake fighting or low rent Cirque du Soleil. When he trained Shayna Baszler, who has successfully transitioned from MMA to WWE’s NXT, he immediately explained to her that pro wrestling is not any different from what she was already doing in martial arts combat.

“This is fighting,” stressed Barnett. “When JR and I call the Wrestling Kingdom matches, or any New Japan match, we call it like a contest. JR has that ability to elevate a moment with intensity and emotion, but he’s also so cool, calm, and collected. JR is such a phenomenal presence in this sport, and he and Gordon Solie served as inspirations for me.

“I try to add my own flavor. People say I’m old school, as if that’s a knock against me. My trainers were Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch, and Antonio Inoki mentored me in New Japan and I was taken under the wing by Jushin Liger. I was in the halls of legends and I was lucky enough to get their time. I lived there for two years and soaked up as much as I could. I have my opinions of wrestling, I’m not going to shy away from them. I’m going to shoot straight.”

Barnett stressed that wrestling is not about moves, but rather revolves entirely over intent.

“People think I hate what are considered unrealistic parts of wrestling, like a moonsault or high-flying maneuvers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Barnett. “Create a foundation so that your cool moves don’t just look cool, but also look believable. Staying rooted in that fundamental element allows people to believe what you do. When people believe what you do, you can pretty much get away with anything. But that’s tough to apply, when 95 percent of the people working have never been in a real fight.”

Like any mixed martial artist, Barnett remains devoted and disciplined to his craft. He adds realism to the New Japan broadcasts on AXS, bringing honesty, insight, and passion to his calls.

“These are elite-level fights,” said Barnett. “I’m working to highlight the wrestlers as true combat athletes in the eyes of the viewers, and show the intensity and severity of these fights.”

Wrestling and fighting are integrally linked, a fact that is apparent every time Barnett calls a match for New Japan.

“My job is to make you respect what they do, believe what they do, and invest emotionally,” said Barnett. “I lived in Japan, I am a product of New Japan Pro Wrestling, and I’ve always believed that is the best way to approach pro wrestling.”

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