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Q&A with Kevin Kelly, Commentator for NJPW

2 years ago

Q&A with Kevin Kelly, Commentator for NJPW

By: Ciarán Hayward,

New Japan Pro-Wrestling is unquestionably pioneering within wrestling in many ways, with its streaming service bringing worldwide attention to its top-tier in ring talent. Starting in 2015, fans seeking a major league alternative to WWE could now watch all the action in high-definition, with live English commentary.

The one constant throughout all of it, has been the voice of Kevin Kelly.

Mr. Kelly’s quick wit and sharp observations have a career’s worth of experience to draw upon. Older fans of the Attitude Era may fondly remember his segments with The Rock, but a new generation knows him as the soundtrack to some of the biggest moments of NJPW’s latest boom period. He has made it his mission to bring the action to every fan’s living room, frequently traveling between America and Japan – and even recording live at the early hours of the morning from home during the pandemic.

Originally posted by Wrestle Inn as part of Ciarán’s “Drink at the Inn” segment, Mr. Kelly discusses his broadcasting influences, favorite guest commentators, the challenges of commentary during covid-19, interacting with NJPW superstars and so much more.

Monthly Puroresu: The pandemic was interesting for pro-wrestling. For the majority of 2020, you couldn’t be in Japan. How was it to finally get back to Japan for Wrestle Kingdom, and be back in the Tokyo Dome behind the commentary desk?

Kevin Kelly: It was great! It really was! It was a personal sacrifice. I knew that if I went, I had to miss Christmas with my family. But New Japan gave me the option. They said ‘We understand if you don’t want to miss Christmas, and if you want to call Wrestle Kingdom from home, that’s fine. But you can be here if you would like?’ And I said ‘Yeah, absolutely!‘ I had to talk about it with my family. But I pretty much told them this is what I need to do. We’d all been in it together for the whole year. I just thought ‘Let’s start this New Year off with some hope. Let’s get it off on the right start, and let me be there to call Wrestle Kingdom live. Then we’ll see how it goes.’ I wound up being in Japan for almost 50 days! So it was a long tour. But I was happy that I went.

Monthly Puroresu: A big part of the tour, you were commentating by yourself as well. Because, Chris Charlton couldn’t accompany you. You have had El Phantasmo join you on occasion. Sometimes, reluctantly! How was it commentating by yourself, and how’s it different with wrestlers substituting?

Kevin Kelly: It’s different. It’s more difficult. It tested me as a broadcaster. I always wanted to be in wrestling as an announcer. I never wanted to be a wrestler. I always wanted to be the announcer. Gordon Solie [play by play for Georgia Championship Wrestling, Championship Wrestling from Florida and later World Championship Wrestling – WCW] was my idol growing up in Florida. So, that was who I listened to. But the “Plan B” if wrestling didn’t work out, was baseball. I called baseball in college, and I will listen to any game on the radio because I love baseball on the radio. I don’t even need to have a rooting interest. Doesn’t have to be my team, the New York fans. I just need to listen to baseball on the radio. And that was what I thought.

Kevin Kelly: It’s just having a chat with my friends. Because that’s the best baseball announcer. When they’re doing their best, it’s always just like some friendly voice on the other end. Who’s a fan. Just like all of you watching at home. I just happened to have some more knowledge and stats in front of me that I can relay to you guys. So that was really my thought.

Kevin Kelly: I appreciated having Phantasmo with me. At first, I could have done without him retiring, then unretiring and then re-retiring to go after Hiromu Takahashi. I could have done without that. But I appreciate it. I appreciated Zack Sabre Jr. joining me for the main-event. That’s not his thing. He did it reluctantly. He didn’t want to. But I kind of twisted his arm. Because I felt like if he felt comfortable enough, he could lend really good insight into Ibushi vs. SANADA. And I felt like he did. People just said it was difficult to hear him. I don’t know if this is a hundred percent true. But I think they had his headset level for Phantasmo. Then when there wasn’t anybody with me, they just never readjusted the sound levels because he wasn’t with me the whole show.

Monthly Puroresu: You’ve had tons of different people join you on the commentary desk! You’ve had fellow commentators; Don Callis, Excalibur, Matt Striker. You’ve had wrestlers; Bad Luck Fale, Lance Archer. And one of my favorites was Juice Robinson, at the Best of the Super Jrs! He was phenomenal! He was so funny and he was so insightful. Do you have any particular fond memories of people that have joined you or anyone you’d rather didn’t join you again?

Kevin Kelly: I like everybody in their own way. Fale of course, very soft-spoken. He gave me a line I still use today: ‘He’s got one of those faces you just want to punch.’ One of my favorites was Chris Sabin who I think called the final night of the Best of Super Juniors with me! So I’ve enjoyed everybody that I’ve had. It’s more of getting them, whoever joins me to believe in themselves. To just sit out there. Because it’s one thing to be a wrestler in the post-match comment area, or on the mic standing in the middle of the ring and doing it live.

Kevin Kelly: But it’s another, when you have the headset on and like ‘Oh my God! I’ve never done this before!’‘It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’ll lead you through it.’ And sure enough, we just wind up having a chat. I pull their personality out and we get to learn some insights. Look at Rocky Romero! Rocky started out like ‘Oh I don’t know if I want to do this. It’s a lot of pressure.’ Now he’s become really great! Chris Charlton has a terrible voice. I say this all the time and everybody will agree. You probably get so mad! But if you think about it, Chris is a writer. It’s not his thing. But boy, he’s taken to it! He’s really easy to produce. You tell him once and then never have an issue again.

Kevin Kelly: We’ve refined his role to where now, when Chris is with me and there’s several of us together, the analyst can analyze, Chris can plug in with his crazy knowledge of history. He can relate history to the now I just keep the boat going straight and it all just works. And there’s no producer. I’m the only one. There’s nobody in our ear. They don’t tell us when to start. They don’t tell us when to finish. And we have a blast! It’s a load of fun!

Monthly Puroresu: Has there ever been another wrestler or commentator who was planning to join you on commentary, but it never panned out?

Kevin Kelly: I know Lance Archer wanted to do more. But this is funny. So before Don Callis came on board, and because it was going to be Omega vs. Jericho, they had floated the idea of Bret Hart. And I said, ‘Go right ahead. Reach out to him.’ Before they did, and because they couldn’t contact Bret. Kenny suggested Don. So that’s how Don Callis came to be. But actually one of the first names that was floated not too long before was Bret Hart. They were thinking “Oh Canadian!” Okay. Could be anybody. Right? But that would have been interesting. That would have been a lot of fun. I think with Bret it would have been like ‘whoa?!’

Kevin Kelly interviews Bret Hart, WWF Raw c. 1997

Monthly Puroresu: So a normal day for you, when you’re in Japan, how do you prepare for a show?

Kevin Kelly: So if I have landed just the day or so before, it’s drinking a lot of water. I’ve already got my notes printed out ahead of time. So I’m trying to rehydrate myself. Because you lose a lot of fluid on the plane. Then if I’ve done a show, back to back, I am hydrating a lot, because I use a lot of water vapor leaving my mouth. I feel very dehydrated after I do a show. So it’s generally trying to find a place to print notes, drinking a lot of water; Pocari sweat. Then after the show, it’s coming back, making tentative plans to go eat and more times than not going ‘I’m just too tired. I’m going to bed’ My brain is so tired after a show. Sometimes like a “Road To” show, I can handle going to McDonald’s from Korakuen Hall. But then I’m in bed pretty quickly after that. But if it’s a big show; I’m spent! After Tokyo dome, I did not leave my room either night. I went right back to my room. Both nights I had tentative plans to grab some food. I was supposed to go out but said ‘I can’t make it. I’m exhausted.’

Monthly Puroresu: You’ve now been commentating for thirty years! And in that time, wrestling has evolved and changed over the years. Do you think commentary has evolved and changed over the years too?

Kevin Kelly: I don’t think it’s evolved and changed. I don’t think so at all. Because it’s still wrestling. It’s a little different. But I don’t call matches significantly differently than I did 30 years ago. Everybody can say ‘Oh, well, the business has changed and everybody’s in on it now.’ Not as far as I’m concerned. You’re never going to hear me breaking rules, as it were. From a wrestling standpoint, I’m going to call it straight. That’s my job. If ELP wants to say insider terms and be a wise ass. Okay, go right ahead. He can do it. But that’s not my job. My job is to call the action. It’s to get everybody over and that’s it. It’s a pretty simple job. I just know now that I have 30 years of experience in 30 years of callbacks in my own head. Because you’d like to say you’ve seen it all in wrestling. But I haven’t. Because I see something new all the time. But I remember back to different situations, and I’m able to remember how to convey emotions based upon something I may have done in a previous company or at a previous time.

Monthly Puroresu: In 2020, you were working from home. Couldn’t get to Japan. Was there any moments you were watching and thought ‘I wish I was there in person?’

Kevin Kelly: If we could have called EVIL turning on LIJ. I’ll never forget Rocky and I just looking at each other like ‘what the hell?!’ Those are those types of moments where you want to be there live. I’m so much better when I’m there, and the guys crossing in front of me. I just get a story. I get more out of being there than not being there. Because again, if I’m looking at the monitor, I’m looking at the monitor. But if I’m looking away from the monitor, I can see something going on, that’s not on the camera’s view.

Kevin Kelly: I’m telling that story more times than not. They’ll cut to it. They’re not cutting to it because I’m saying it. They’re cutting to it because it’s happening, but I’m alerting the audience. Because they could only have one camera up at a time. So those types of things. Just add to the viewership, add to the audience experience because I have eyes on everything. Hiromu Takahashi’s parents being in the crowd, for example. When he returned and the interplay that was going on with Gino and I, because Hiromu’s parents were fighting in the crowd. You know if I was home, I wouldn’t have seen that. So it’s always better to be at ringside, calling it live.

Monthly Puroresu: Of course. So what moments stick out for you as most memorable, actually being there, over the years in New Japan? Because you’ve got the best front seat out of everyone!

Kevin Kelly: As I start to think, the first show I called; King of Pro-Wrestling October, 2015. And when the masked man pulled off his mask and it was Watanabe. I was like ‘Oh my God’! I had just seen him in Ring of Honor. So that was the first of those moments. The matches with Tanahashi and Okada. The G1 Climax tournament. Naito losing to Zack Sabre Jr. And the woman behind me crying her eyes out. Even to the end of the show and me consoling her afterward because she could not stop crying. Then the shock on a lot of people’s faces when they realized I was there at Tokyo Dome! I hadn’t seen Ibushi for two days. He had to have known I was there. But as he came around the corner and he saw us, he was like ‘what?!’ I was like, man, you’re awesome.

Kevin Kelly: Times like when Tenzan got eliminated from the Rambo. He comes over and says ‘Happy New Year!’. I’m like ‘we’re on the air pal!’ But this is great. So I have a good relationship with a lot of the guys. I can find out a lot of stuff. Like I asked SANADA, his thoughts about when Ibushi said he would unify the titles. What would you do? And SANADA said ‘I don’t know’. And that was the story I told because that was what he said. I don’t know if he had thought about it if he hadn’t thought about it, but that was his answer to me. I was cool with it because that’s the story I told on the air.

Monthly Puroresu: Do you have any other funny little anecdotes like that? Whether it be the Japanese wrestlers, or just little funny backstage interactions. Or people coming up to you on the commentary desks viewers and fans may not be privy to? Or that we don’t see on the camera?

Kevin Kelly: Well, there’s one that I save all the time and I rewatch. I just have the clip. Obviously not Naito missing me. Even though that was probably the most liked thing that I’ve ever seen. That was really cool. It was Suzuki-gun and LIJ. It was a multi man match. ZSJ had SANADA into the end of the fence right in front of us. And I got the microphone out. Like I always say, ‘What the hell is this?’ And Zack says ‘It’s an armbar Kevin, you idiot!’ Yes. I get that. Then I was just like I’m an idiot. He has an arm bar on him. So those types of things. There was a famous story about Satoshi Kojima. Kojima gets ribbed all the time. Okay. And there was a famous story about Hashimoto collecting cicadas all day long, putting them in a box and then releasing the cicadas into Kojima’s room.

Kevin Kelly: So that was years before me. So there was something going on where somebody had a bunch of oranges. And they decided to put all of these oranges in Kojima’s room. And several people were involved in this. So basically when Kojima came back, he found his room filled with oranges. So David Finlay is telling me the story. And we’re laughing about it. So then Finlay comes out for his match. I don’t know where he got it from. But he flips an orange to me, and I just lost it on air. So I had the orange on my desk. Then Cody comes out for his match And Cody’s yelling and screaming about something. He sees the orange and throws it. He then says ‘I threw your orange away!I hope you get scurvy or whatever!’ I was like; that’s my orange. That was my gift from David Finlay. Those types of things. That’s just the ‘hahaha’ that happens all the time that sometimes we can be a part of. But for the most part, the wrestlers are in their locker rooms and I’m squared away at the opposite side of the building, until the show starts.

Monthly Puroresu: One thing I wanted to get your opinion on, as a commentator, is an infamous moment with Jay White and Juice Robinson. The G1 Special in San Francisco. Jay threw Juice into the barrier. JR unfortunately falls off his chair then Josh Barnett gets himself into the match. What was your first thoughts when you saw it?

Kevin Kelly: I felt badly for JR because I knew he was hurt. The reason that he got hurt was not because Jay threw Juice into the barricade. But because the barricades weren’t connected. And that’s the type of thing that you don’t know until you know. And unfortunately, JR got hurt because of it. Josh was wrong for leaving commentary. No shape, form or fashion. No other way to say it. He was wrong. And unfortunately JR got hurt, which was the unintended consequences of physical action. That’s one of the perils of being at ringside. But certainly one that could have been avoided if the building had decided to hook the barricades together. And what if Josh had hit Jay and knocked him out? That’s why you could never do that. That’s the unpardonable sin.

Monthly Puroresu: On top of doing commentary for the Japanese shows, New Japan Strong has started. You’ve been joined by Alex Koslov doing that. What’s that experience been like doing commentary in front of no fans? Do you have to adapt how you call it?

Kevin Kelly: At first I did. Because at first it was like, ‘I’m so loud’. I am going to distract everybody. And after the first sets of shows, it kind of sounded like I was calling golf. I was like…This sucks! I’m just going to be me. Normally you don’t speak in muted tones. And, everybody in the ring notices it. I’ve asked a few of the guys. They’ve said they hear me at first. But then once the match gets going, they don’t pay attention. I didn’t want to bother them. I didn’t want to distract. And it’s not a distraction now. Like I was screaming at the top of my lungs when Moxley attacked KENTA.

Kevin Kelly: We’ve got all these guys that are just sitting around that want to do stuff. So let’s create a show and give them something to do. And, it’s become its own thing and it’s great! It’s a really physical, hard hitting show. Those young lions, and everybody that has come from the independent scene, has gotten better because of it. Guys are getting signed because they’re appearing on New Japan Strong, which is great! A lot of these guys just needed an opportunity to be seen.

Monthly Puroresu: Are there any particular matches you’ve called which you look back on and you feel it’s the best commentary you’ve done in your career? Any matches you walk away from thinking you’ve just knocked it out of the park?

Kevin Kelly: I don’t listen to a lot of my stuff. But recently with the Roku Channel, I started watching Wrestle Kingdom 14 back. And I was really happy with how that unfolded. I didn’t say very much. And that’s why it worked. Because I had three other brilliant analysts with me and I let them all say whatever they needed to say. It’s not the Kevin show. So sometimes when I say less, it’s better. When I pick those right moments and they just happen. They’re not planned. We’ll get into a scenario where 1, 2, 1, 2, trading or Suzuki is going to lay those forearms. We stop talking because you can hear it and you can feel it because you can hear it. So some of my best work is when I don’t say a word.

Wrestling Stars Give it Up for Kevin Kelly