Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Kelly Talks Criticism of Billy Gunn Facing Tanahashi at Long Beach, Okada’s Historic NJPW Title Run, TNA Dropping the Ball & More

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, Kazuchika Okada’s history title reign, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, the upcoming G1 Climax, and a whole lot more in a nearly two hour long conversation. Below is part two of this massive three-part interview, so make sure you check back soon for the rest! 

Part One: Kevin Kelly on NJPW’s expansion, Cody vs. Okada and the U.S. title tournament! 

* * * * *

After Dominion I wrote a piece calling Okada the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history. There’s been a lot of discussion on that topic because of greats like Shinya Hashimoto, Tatsuji Fujinami and of course Hiroshi Tanahashi’s incredible 2011 reign. What are your thoughts? 

“If Okada gets his hand raised in Long Beach, then we begin to talk about greatest of all time. His match with Minoru Suzuki shortened his life. He was black and blue from his hip to the middle of his shin from Suzuki just kicking the crap out of him. I try to listen to the fans at Korakuen Hall, and I was starting to sense that before Dominion that some people were on the fence with Okada because you’re always going to have people saying that they’re shoving him down our throats. It’s always the same argument. But now it’s different. The fans realize they are seeing one of the all-time greats. Even the most hardened fans watched Dominion and saw him go 60 minutes with Kenny, and realize how great this guy is.” 

“We are always prisoners of the moment. Not being able to compare apples to apples with [Shinya] Hashimoto’s passing, it’s difficult to say. There may be the most ardent supporters of Hashimoto that might say no, for what he was able to do for his time, in his era, and the matches he had against the opponents of his time. But there are some that would say they saw both, and they don’t disagree that Okada is the greatest ever. And I don’t think either one would be wrong in that scenario. But obviously the high level of matches that Okada has had, the multiple stars that he has earned from Dave Meltzer, if we just look at it from that perspective then we have to say yes.” 

Perhaps one of the most important things about this title reign is that Okada has, for really the first time, been able to escape the enormous shadow cast by Tanahashi.

“There were some that said last year that it’s not a Wrestle Kingdom main event without Tanahashi. When Okada and Kenny went out and sold more tickets than the year before, and had the match that they did, I think it was perfect for both guys. Now the pressure is off Tanahashi, who has dealt with multiple injuries and has age creeping up on him.”

It’s crazy to think that TNA at one point had Okada, and couldn’t figure out what to do with him. 

“I think that led to Ring of Honor getting their opportunity with New Japan. We’ve seen Jay White come over, Kaimatachi came over before he went back as Hiromu Takahashi, Watanabe came over before he went back as EVIL. And they’ve all been great. If TNA didn’t drop the ball with Okada and Tanahashi, in the limited appearances that they were there, ROH may have never been a part of the conversation with New Japan.” 

Changing gears, are you excited about the rematch between War Machine and the Guerrillas of Destiny in Long Beach?

“It’s going to be a great match. War Machine is amazing. It’s not that they weren’t great before, but now I think they have a chip on their shoulder that they’re fighting with, but Tama Tonga may have an even bigger chip on his shoulder. He and Tanga Loa have improved as a team, and I don’t think they get near enough credit. I’m tired of people dumping on them. I think you could have made that argument in February of last year, but not anymore.” 

Speaking of Tanga Loa, he was a part of a somewhat infamous three-way tag match at Wrestle Kingdom this year that came under fire because there was so much foul language being used in the ring. 

“I love this story, and I’ve told it before. So after Wrestle Kingdom, before Steve Corino left the territory, there wasn’t much open in Tokyo city and so we ended up going to McDonalds. There’s not a lot of people so we’re in there by ourselves. And here comes Tanga Loa, and he’s got a hoodie on and its pulled over his face. He sees us and walks over with his head down, and he goes, ‘Hey… I’m really sorry for all the F Bombs. I kind of lost my head out there.’ And we’re thinking, are you kidding me? We loved it. I was in WWF during the Attitude Era. We had middle fingers, and everything Steve Austin and the Rock threw at the television screen.” 

“A Tonga Loa and Togi Makabe debate would be so entertaining. There are fewer F Bombs in a roast than there were at the Tokyo Dome. Steve had to take his headset off because he kept fading down his mic. So I being the friend to Steve that I am, I noticed that he turned his mic down and started to laugh, and I immediately reach over and put the fader up on full. So now he realizes I’m ribbing him, and he rips the headset off his head and puts it down.” 

There’s been some criticism of NJPW booking Billy Gunn against Hiroshi Tanahashi at this weekend’s Long Beach events. Having known Billy for years, what are your thoughts on the match? 

“I think they needed a good wrestling opponent for Tanahashi. It wouldn’t shock me if Tanahashi had actually said he wanted to wrestle Billy Gunn. I think the consensus backstage from everyone who saw him during the Tag League and then at Wrestle Kingdom is that this guy is still great. It reminds of Tanahashi vs. Mike Bennett at the first War of the Worlds tour. Everybody farted on that and thought it was going to be the worst, and they ended up having a great match. And it benefited Bennett so much. But what nobody knows is that Tanahashi wanted to work with Bennett. When you’re a top guy, if you want to wrestle anyone they’ll figure out a way to make it happen. I think it’s going to be a great match. Now, I don’t think he’s losing the belt. I’m 99.9999% sure that Tanahashi is winning. But I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

“If you want to see a vintage Tanahashi match, I think Billy Gunn is a perfect opponent for that. From the nuts and bolts of professional wrestling and how it works, there’s nobody better to get Tanahashi over and showcase him as the true star than Billy Gunn. He’s going to make him look incredible. Where the disappointment may be is that Billy Gunn isn’t over in New Japan because he hasn’t competed there on a regular basis, and he may suffer from that, so maybe he’s in a no-win situation. The Smoking Gunns were great, but some people just didn’t get it. Some people didn’t understand what the New Age Outlaws were or why they were with DX. It’s because he’s freaking great, and he goes into things with absolutely no ego at all. The Long Beach fans are going to see Tanahashi be the ace of New Japan that we’ve known for years, we’re going to see all the big moves, and at the end he’s going to play air guitar and Billy Gunn is going to walk to the back, and people will say ‘holy crap that was an awesome match.’ But hey… It could have been Bone Soldier, folks.”