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Kevin Kelly and Don Callis: New Japan’s secret weapon in taking over North America



The first week of the G1 Climax 27 tournament is in the books and the buzz surrounding New Japan Pro Wrestling is building to a roar. After a spectacular string of shows in the first half of 2017 and hot on the heels of their successful G1 Climax in USA specials (the first of which was broadcast live across North America) NJPW has planted its flag in the States in bold fashion and declared its intent to return with force in 2018. And while NJPW will likely never surpass WWE in terms of “sports entertainment,” those that run the Tokyo promotion are positioning it as the number one wrestling promotion in the world. The mainstream fan is starting to take note.

But why now?

NJPW didn’t appear out of the ether, after all. This is a company with a 45 year history, and even casual fans of “sports entertainment” have heard of the company. The popularity of the Bullet Club and WWE’s high-profile signings of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson to WWE contracts over the last 12+ months have forced WWE announcers to acknowledge that promotions other than WWE do, in fact, exist.

The internet, too, has played a massive role in NJPW’s latest rise. Whether it is the advent of the NJPW World streaming service–a service that is less polished than “The Network” but no less bursting with legendary content–or the ubiquitous and near-constant background hum of social media, Japan no longer seems far away. New Japan’s 45 years of content is more or less readily available and easily accessible to the English-speaking world with a couple clicks of the mouse.

Despite all the technological advances and bold business plans, New Japan’s current North American success boils down to one thing: people. The gaijin working for NJPW are true believers and they are working harder than ever–both in and out of the ring–to evangelize New Japan’s hard-hitting, athletic style of pro wrestling. They’re a new generation of wrestlers that are less concerned with the relics of a carny past and more concerned with creating a future in wrestling that is filled with viable opportunities for wrestlers of all stripes and styles. A future where success or failure isn’t measured by the relative popularity of a run in WWE.

Kevin Kelly and Don Callis, New Japan’s English announce team, are leading the charge. Kelly, a longtime announcer and interviewer with WWE and Ring of Honor, began calling New Japan Shows in 2015. Callis, better know to mainstream wrestling fans as The Jackal or Cyrus, was hired on the recommendation of Kenny Omega to replace Steve Corino on color commentary in January 2017. And while Corino (and to an extent, Matt Striker before him) were perfectly serviceable, Kelly and Callis have quickly turned into NJPW’s secret weapon in the war to take North America.

Callis, in particular, deserves a tremendous amount of praise for his work. What he has done since January has been nothing short of amazing. While his first few shows were a bit rough, Callis knows that an announcer’s job is to put the wrestlers over. To hilarious effect, Callis does so by weighing each and every minute he calls against the two things he loves the most: Kenny Omega and himself.

It’s genius, in large part because it isn’t shtick.

His unapologetic love and respect for Kenny Omega is the centerpiece of Callis’ announcing. It is through that lens he is able to convey not only Omega’s virtuosity, but talent and ability of every other wrestler on the roster. Whether Omega is involved in a match or not, Callis is quick to bring him up and craft a narrative that revolves around Omega and his fellow gaijin in Bullet Club.

Like a 21st Century Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Callis has an uncanny ability to make everything about him. Callis constantly injects himself into the narrative of nearly every match. Whether it is literally running away from Minoru Suzuki during Suzuki’s entrance, talking about partying with Bullet Club in Roppongi, or railing against “The Office” for being second-rate shysters, Callis is constantly giving the viewer information not only about the match in front of him, but about the larger NJPW meta-narrative. His little details and asides are the color for which the position of color-commentary was created.

Callis wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Kevin Kelly on play-by-play. Kelly is better than most when it comes to calling the action in the ring, but his true talent is knowing when to lead, when to follow and when to simply get out-of-the-way. He’s the perfect counterpart for Callis. They never range too far afield, and even at their most absurd they never lose sight of the sport-based presentation of the NJPW product. The end result is a Japanese story told from a North American perspective. It is subtle, it is genius and it had added a level of drama and accessibility to New Japan shows that transcends the action in the ring while never shifting focus from it.

If the first week of the G1 is any indication, the roster knows that the eyes of the wrestling world are on them. The first few days of matches have been top-notch. There is an intensity, an urgency to the action that leaps from the screen. These athletes know they are on the cusp of taking their company to the next level–on their terms–and they are doing everything in their power to put NJPW over the top. Gaijin talent is being showcased, but never at the expense of homegrown Japanese stars. And the Japanese talent continues to shine, with legends like Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki delivering matches that were equal parts drama and athletic exhibition.

New Japan is firing on all cylinders and is showing no signs of slowing down. If they can maintain the drama and momentum of the first week of the G1 over the next three weeks, their stock will continue to rise in North America. With every amazing match, every GIF, every re-tweet from a WWE talent, NJPW is insinuating itself into the North American mainstream. Strong style is coming. And it won’t be denied.

This article comes to us via Zachary Matzo – give him a follow on Twitter @perch15

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