Kevin Kelly Talks NJPW Growing Pains in the U.S. Market, Cody Rhodes Chances Against Okada & Who Leaves Long Beach as IWGP U.S. Champion

Mike Killam
Kevin Kelly ROH

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fresh off a car accident and a fairly serious concussion, I kicked out at two-and-a-half this week to speak with long-time pro wrestling announcer and the American voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling Kevin Kelly.

The Ring of Honor veteran and former WWE personality joined me to discuss this weekend’s NJPW G1 Specials in Long Beach, the company’s expansion into the United States, and a whole lot more in a nearly two hour long conversation. Below is part one of this massive three-part interview, so make sure you check back soon for the rest! 

Have there been any noticeable growing pains with New Japan trying to bring their product to a completely new and different market, really for the very first time? 

“There are some growing pains, but there are so many masters you have to serve. You want the exposure of live television, being able to be on with a cable network, but you have to work out those split feeds. Think about the first Super Bowl – it aired on two different networks. In 50 years we’ve seen the evolution of the product, and it’s become the most watched event in U.S. television every year. So when you have a situation like this, when it’s the first time out of the gate, trying to figure out what will work best and how to broadcast the shows to a growing and diverse audience, there are going to be some growing pains.” 

The world is a very different place than it was 50 years ago, and now there’s so many ways for really any major wrestling promotion to distribute their shows. 

“Certainly as more people are cutting the cord, more fans are tuning in and downloading the app and subscribing through New Japan World. Now you can get it through Amazon Fire TV, and the Fire Stick is great. I know more apps are in development. It wouldn’t shock me if it’s available soon on Roku, Playstation – every format, whatever you’ve got hopefully you’ll be able to watch it. Over time it will happen. Ustream was when I really got on board with NJPW. I was not a tape trader because I was working in the industry. So you would try to find clips here and there, and different people would send you matches, but now it’s practically available to everybody via the website. So many fans are wanting to go over to Japan to see Wrestle Kingdom or some of the G1 shows, and you can go over to NJPW1972.com for their English website, and you not only can get translations of the match interviews, but you can also get your tickets. It’s so super easy now.”

Cody Rhodes recently won the ROH World Championship, and now if it’s possible he has an even bigger challenge in front of him just a week later in the form of Kazuchika Okada.

“Cody was the odds-on favorite last Friday when he was wrestling Christopher Daniels, who is one of the all-time greats. He caught lightning in a bottle, the time was right for him to capture the Ring of Honor title for the first time. It was long overdue. But now Cody is stepping up, and I think there’s probably a lot more pressure on him for this match with Okada because he knows the gravity of the situation. This is the ultimate example of betting on yourself. He was willing to walk away from good guaranteed money for the chance to do this. To main event a New Japan show and to wrestle Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.” 

“Cody came into New Japan and he’s been taken care of. He’s been allowed to showcase and feature his talent. The obvious comparison is between Cody Rhodes and AJ Styles. They’re completely different workers, but compare name value and instant recognition. You had to be kind of a hardcore fan in Japan to know who AJ Styles was because TNA wasn’t as globally popular as WWE. So Cody had a built-in advantage coming in.” 

Looking at the schedule for the rest of 2017, realistically what happens to New Japan if Cody manages to do the “unthinkable” and defeat Okada for the title? 

“A Cody win opens up a whole realm of title challengers. If this title match happened in April, I think Cody wins. But now that we’re so close to G1 and King of Pro Wrestling there’s only going to be a handful of defenses for the champion between now and Wrestle Kingdom. So the benefit of Cody winning, and how it would benefit New Japan at the box office is possibly negated by the calendar. The fact that he’s not in the G1 is something to consider as well. If Cody wins it surprises me, but I’m not shocked.”

There was a tense moment at NJPW Dominion where Cody almost threw in the towel for Kenny Omega. What’s going on with Bullet Club right now? 

“First of all, I don’t think Karl Anderson gets enough credit for being the power behind Bullet Club in the earlier days. When AJ Styles was at the top it was Karl and Doc Gallows that were the driving force behind that. They really helped get Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) over and to that next level when he was on the rise. The dynamic is different now. I’ve always said there are cliques and fissures within Bullet Club that could be, and should be explored. It’s two different groups right now. On one side you’ve got The Elite, and the other side you’ve got the older guards with Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale, and I think Yujiro Takahashi fits in there. Cody is in the middle, and whichever guy steps up and says ‘I’m the leader, follow me’, who goes where? If Cody had thrown in the towel [at Dominion] for Kenny Omega, I think that would have been the split of Bullet Club right there. 

We also have a brand new IWGP U.S. Heavyweight Championship being created, and we’ll see the first champion crowned in Long Beach. What do you think the future holds for this belt considering how many major singles titles NJPW already has? 

“I think the [U.S. Heavyweight Championship] being the main belt for New Japan’s expansion into the American market is kind of the best case scenario. Through the rest of this year and until there are more U.S. events announced, and from all indications there will be because both these Long Beach shows sold out immediately, I think you’ll see the title defended sparingly.”

That being said, there’s a lot of directions they could go with this tournament…

“Absolutely. If you’re wanting to see more of [Tetsuya] Naito or [Tomohiro] Ishii competing in the U.S. you may be pulling for them to win. If you want to see the title defended more frequently on other events [like Ring of Honor], then maybe pull for Jay Lethal or Hangman Page. Zack Sabre Jr. adds an element where it could be defended in the UK and all over the world. There’s a lot of different ways they could go with this. Kenny Omega is the 800-pound gorilla in any tournament, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a surprise final. Anything could happen, but I think it’s going to be a surprise. I think you’re going to see something more towards the New Japan Cup rather than the G1, where the guys you would normally bet on to win the whole thing end up getting knocked out in the first round. Of course you’ve got guys like Kenny and Naito that are always favorites to win, but anything could happen.”

So who do you think leaves Long Beach as the first ever U.S. champion? 

“If Michael Elgin won it wouldn’t shock me. I’m leaning towards Elgin. I think he’s benefited from being off a couple of months, and by him cooling off from Japan and not being in high profile matches that he doesn’t win, or being in meaningless tag matches, and for the most part we haven’t seen him. I think Elgin is the guy, and he walks away with this title.” 

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