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Q&A with Mark Pickering, Commentator for NOAH

3 years ago

Q&A with Mark Pickering, Commentator for NOAH

By: Jamie Johnson

To say it’s been an expansive year for Pro Wrestling NOAH would be an understatement. Following CyberFight’s purchase of the promotion, it’s seen international growth not experienced since the days of Mitsuhara Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. Domestically, names like Katsuhiko Nakajima have helped drive the second rise of NOAH. Monthly Puroresu has heard from multiple sources close to the company that Sanshiro Takagi intends to make even further inroads across the Pacific in the years to come.

For fans abroad, the newly redesigned Wrestle Universe has been critical to his plans, with shows now regularly receiving English commentary from the broadcasting duo of Stewart Fulton and Mark Pickering.

On a chilly evening in November, I got to speak with Pickering about everything – his time in wrestling, what drew him to NOAH at such a critical time for the promotion, and beyond.


Monthly Puroresu: How did you first get into wrestling?

Mark Pickering: So, growing up in the UK it was on Sky Sports. As a child I was always interested in pro wrestling, I don’t know why but it always stood out for me. It was something I spotted at 7 or 8 years old when it was on TV. Also, my uncle and grandad watched wrestling and had many video tapes. It grew from there. I was just watching WWE in the early years, then when I got to the teenage years I got into Japanese and Mexican wrestling. When I got home from the school the first thing I would do was download wrestling, from Aimster, Kazar and Napster. 

Probably around 2001 I started buying Japanese wrestling tapes. I was buying Dragon Gate, NOAH from UK traders on the forums. It grew from there, it was definitely a passion of mine and I wanted to go to Japan to watch some shows.

Monthly Puroresu: From there, how did you get into Pro Wrestling NOAH in particular?

Mark Pickering: Around the legendary reign of Kenta Kobashi in 2003. Every title defense was a must-see attraction, in particular that 2003 title match against Misawa. That was the first NOAH tape I bought. I’ve stuck with it and watched it since then, though I’ve dipped in and out with other promotions over time. It was definitely the reigns of Kobashi and Misawa that drew me to NOAH.

Monthly Puroresu: How did you end up working in NOAH?

Mark Pickering: I came to Japan at the end of last year, and I knew Stewart Fulton was looking for a commentary colleague to work with him on kickboxing commentary in a company called RISE. I messaged him about that, and RISE Kickboxing was the first live commentary event I did, in October [2020] in Osaka. 

I met someone from ABEMA there, and they asked me if I was interested in doing commentary for NOAH. And I jumped at the chance, really. It was the right place at the right time because they couldn’t get people in from abroad at the time. Stewart has a background in kickboxing and MMA, whereas I was more known in the judo and MMA circles. So, they put us two together and I like to think it clicked from the beginning. 

Monthly Puroresu: What’s the difference between wrestling commentary and other combat sports?

Mark Pickering: We treat NOAH similar to combat sports. Especially Japanese wrestling, lots of the guys have striking backgrounds and it’s very authentic so we regard it as a sport. We try to tell the stories of the wrestlers, and we try to make it all about the wrestlers and the promotion. We are there to narrate and provide the audio track for their world-class action.

Of course at the minute where the crowds can’t make any noise, we really had to emphasis the striking through our commentary.

Monthly Puroresu: What’s it like to work with Stewart Fulton?

Mark Pickering: He’s got a background in Pancrase, and he’s worked in mixed-martial arts and kickboxing. He had no background in pro wrestling and had never really watched it since he was a kid, so we were thrown in at the deep end. It kinda worked because he had the commentary experience and I had the pro wrestling knowledge as a fan. Between the two of us we’ve worked it out, we do hours and hours of research for every event. I’ve got a database of all the terminology and finishing moves for the wrestlers.

I really had to pinch myself the first time I commented at ringside for a show. It was Takashi Sugiura vs. Go Shiozaki, the sort of match I would watch at home. I have a degree in journalism, so there are some transferable skills from that to broadcast.

Monthly Puroresu: What’s been your favorite match to commentate on?

Mark Pickering: Good question! I’m gonna have to say Kenoh vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima in the N-1 Victory Final at Korakuen Hall. What I loved about it is that it was only 20minutes and it was an all-out war for those 20minutes. You couldn’t take your eyes off it for a second, some of the striking exchanges were the most violent I have ever seen or ever heard. It was a great battle based out of them both wanting to win the tournament, there was no animosity between them.

That’s what led me to push for it to be made available on YouTube. It’s on the NOAH YouTube channel with English commentary for free.

WATCH: Kenoh vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima, N-1 Victory Final at Korakuen Hall 2021

Monthly Puroresu: What can the fans expect to see at the Budokan Hall, January 1st show?

Mark Pickering: I think they can expect one of the best shows NOAH can produce. We were there in February and there was lots of excitement, but of course under the pandemic rules. Hopefully there will be a bigger capacity this time. But either way you can expect an all-star card and some of the best matches NOAH can produce at the Nippon Budokan which is the home of Pro Wrestling NOAH really. What better way to start 2022 for NOAH? We’ve got live English commentary for that show too.

Monthly Puroresu: What’s it like to live and work in Japan?

Mark Pickering: Of course it’s been under the pandemic so we’ve had lots of testing and protocols for the commentary. There are no intermissions in shows and the clap crowds have all made a different atmosphere only based around the clapping.

Monthly Puroresu: During the pandemic, CyberFight has increased the production value of NOAH. Do you think that’s been successful?

Mark Pickering: It’s all about doing the wrestlers in the ring justice, with commentary and lights and set-ups and camera providing the best experience for fans in the venue and watching around the world. We’ve put a lot of effort into attracting international fans, emphasizing the production value. We’ve added a cinematic camera recently to get great shots after the matches. I’d say the production is the best in pro wrestling, for all the shows, not just the biggest shows like at Budokan. There’s lots more to come on that front too.

Katsuhiko Nakajima vs KENOH - N1 Victory 2021 Final by taigaPhoto_pw

Photo: twitter/taigaPhoto_PW KONGO members Katsuhiko Nakajima and Kenoh share a moment of respect in the ring following their all-out war at N-1 Victory Final in 2021.

Monthly Puroresu: What do you think about Katsuhiko Nakajima as champion, and the prospects for his reign?

Mark Pickering: I think it’s going to be the making of him as a legend in wrestling. It’s his second time as GHC Heavyweight Champion, the last time was in 2017, which was quite a testing time for NOAH. Now, he’s regained the title which is a good time for NOAH. He says it’s a “new era”, and he’s only 33 years old so he’s at the best part of his career and he’s made so much progress in all parts of his career. When he walks into the arena your eyes are transfixed on him. He’s just a must-see attraction currently. 

Monthly Puroresu: What do you think is to come from Keiji Muto in the rest of his time in NOAH?

Mark Pickering: While he’s competing he’s always going to have his sights on NOAH gold. He’s won the grand slam of Heavyweight titles, and now the tag team titles too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him challenge for the GHC National Championship next year.

Monthly Puroresu: What do you think the mix is like between younger and older wrestlers in NOAH?

I think it’s something that can captivate audiences in Japan and around the world because Keiji Muto has a certain following in Japan for example. It’s not just about the crowds but also TV appearances and magazine coverages and radio appearances. There’s so much traction around what he does.

Monthly Puroresu: What’s your impression of the NOAH locker room?

We [Mark Pickering and Stewart Fulton] turn up to shows about two hours before, and we go over our notes, talk through what we expect and do a rehearsal. Of course, we see the wrestlers training, in the ring stretching or warming-up. The wrestlers and the whole staff come up to us and shake our hands and bow to us and speak to us. It’s a very warm and friendly environment. They appreciate what we’re doing in trying to grow NOAH around the world. We get a good response from the wrestlers, I think they understand what we’re trying to do to grow the company back to where it belongs at the top of pro wrestling. 

Monthly Puroresu: Who do you think is NOAH’s rising star for 2021?

I think Yasutaka Yano. He’s only 21 years old. He’s only 1 year in. Recently he pinned NOSAWA Rongai, which was an incredible feat back in October. He looks fantastic next to some of the most experienced wrestling. He’s very smooth and he can be very technical. He has high-flying skills too. I think it’s a matter of time before a faction looks to recruit him in the junior division.

Monthly Puroresu: What are your ambitions for the future in wrestling?

Mark Pickering: I know there are ambitions for Pro Wrestling NOAH to go abroad and hold events in America if the COVID situation allows it. If we could do commentary with this company in America or Europe that would be something very appealing. And I want to see venues full again, and maybe go to the UK or America or Mexico. NOAH has good upward momentum at the minute, and we’re always striving to improve our commentary. It’s been a real ambition and goal of NOAH to expand that international fanbase.