Rosser talks KENTA, NJPW Academy
It’s a big February for Fred Rosser both in and out of the ring. With the STRONG Openweight Championship on the line at Battle in the Valley, Mr. No Days Off has his work cut out for him in the face of a highly motivated KENTA. Meanwhile this week’s announcement of NJPW Academy has the Suntan Superman excited about his future as a trainer as well as a wrestler. We spoke to Fred about a new chapter for STRONG, for NJPW Academy, and for Fred Rosser.
While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working
–So first of all, we’ve just past six months for you as STRONG Openweight Champion. Can you reflect on the past few months?
Rosser: The champ is alive and well! This is my first major singles championship of my career, so I take that responsibility very seriously, and I’m so proud to still be the champion. I don’t ever want to be caught slipping and I haven’t yet.
–Seven defences in as many months is an impressive record.
Rosser: For me, I never claim to be the best, or the greatest. Where I excel is my sickening work ethic (laughs). While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working, I’m doing research. I always show up to every building first, I’m always early, and I never take days off; it’s more than just a catchphrase. NJPW and STRONG is my heart, and I have to be the best representative that I can be.
–You’ve had a real diversity of opponents in your reign, from a Jonathan Gresham to a Peter Avalon. Has that been rewarding for you?
Rosser: Absolutely. Each and every opponent has brought the best out of me, and I’ve learned so much. Big Damo, TJP, they brought the best out of me, even Jay White, which was a non title match, but a bucket list opponent for me, that brought the best out of me as well. Time isn’t on the side of any of us- I’m drug and alcohol free and injury free, but we have to make things happen while we can, and I’m glad I’m able to do that.
–Your defence against Fred Yehi last summer was the first ever championship match between two Black wrestlers in NJPW history, so you’re breaking barriers as you go.
Rosser: Definitely, and we put on a hell of a performance for that crowd in Charlotte. It was a hell of a fight.
–And that match with Tom Lawlor, even with big competition, the two of you came out with match of the year in our fan poll for the third year running.
Rosser: When I heard from the company, it was like ‘you gotta be kidding’ (laughs). I think we bring the best out of one another and the fans definitely see that. I’m definitely looking forward to crossing paths again.
Dust settles- you shouldn’t
–NJPW STRONG is taking on a different format this year with the big STRONG LIVE PPV events and STRONG On Demand replacing the current taping system. How do you feel about that shift?
Rosser: Well, we want to put more eyes on NJPW STRONG, and I think this is the way to do that. STRONG is my baby- getting this opportunity during the pandemic was intimidating at first, and I’m not afraid to say that I wasn’t sure I could cut it in New Japan, but when the red light’s on, like Kevin Kelly said ‘very few can keep up with this engine’. I’ve amazed myself with some of what I’ve achieved and that we’ve achieved so far, and I think we can keep amazing everyone. I’m not afraid no more (laughs).
–With more eyes on the STRONG LIVE format comes more competition from within- at Battle in the Valley the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and IWGP Women’s Championship will be on the same card as your STRONG Openweight Championship.
Rosser: I’m so excited, especially for Mercedes (Moné), that’s my girl, and I know this has been a dream of hers for a long, long time.
–I think the question some fans have had is where those new talents and challengers can fit in without a weekly TV taping format, and perhaps the answer is with the open doors to IMPACT Wrestling, Ring Of Honor or AEW among others. Do you see taking those avenues yourself in 2023?
Rosser: Yeah. Collectively, there’s so much wrestling out there. I hate to sound like an old timer talking about ‘back in my day’, but when it came to major options when I started in 2002, it was WWE and that was it- at the time I didn’t think I could cut it with the hard hitting Japanese style- look at me now! Now there’s so much out there so when I talk to young hopefuls I tell them not to get discouraged, because there are just so many options. There’s no need to settle. Dust settles- you shouldn’t.
KENTA’s leaving with three boots on
–Your next challenger is KENTA of course. If you found that Japanese style intimidating when you started out, KENTA represented that style perhaps better than anyone.
Rosser: He did, but KENTA isn’t the same guy he was 10, 12, 15 years ago. When it comes to this fight February 18- I’m coming for that shoulder. I’m coming for that hip. I’m giving him and you my gameplan early because he doesn’t have a chance. I know that I can’t ever look past him and I’m not. But he’s leaving with three boots on- two on his feet and one in his ass.
Rosser: Maybe the KENTA of 15 years ago would have intimidated the Fred Rosser of 15 years ago. But neither of us are the same. I fear no man, and like I said, nobody can keep up with this engine. It’s going to be a challenge, but I have the passion and I’m going to give all he has right back at him. The fans are going to be on the edge of their seats, you can tell I’m pumped.
–It’s easy to draw parallels between yourself and Hiroshi Tanahashi in terms of what you represent to NJPW in Japan and the US. Have Tanahashi’s matches with KENTA been a useful reference for you?
Rosser: If I showed you my phone I would be able to show you exactly how many hundreds of hours of KENTA’s matches I’ve been watching to get ready for this match. Every day I’ve been studying how he moves, how he moved 15, 20 years ago and now. For every counter there’s a counter, and you’re going to see that.
–Did the two of you ever cross paths in WWE, by the way?
Rosser: No, I think when we would have, he was coming into NXT and I was already up on the main roster. So we didn’t cross paths, but we definitely have mutual friends.
–KENTA himself would say that WWE was a very difficult period for his career-
Rosser: I’ve been there, and I know exactly how difficult it can be.
–But at the same time, and maybe this can segue us into talking about NJPW Academy, you can see how he’s been able to use aspects of the WWE approach to thrive in a different way in NJPW.
Rosser: Absolutely, and it’s the same for me- I can wrestle a Honky Tonk Man one night, and KENTA the next. You’ll see that with the two of us- I really do think that people buying the pay per view on FITE and NJPW World will see something magical between KENTA and I. But I’m walking in and walking out the STRONG Openweight Champion, bottom line.
We’re going to give you the tools to get there
–So let’s talk about the Academy. The LA Dojo is five years old now, and the image of Katsuyori Shibata coaching prospects from the ground up, it’s a full time commitment, but Academy stands as something a little different. What does the school mean to you?
Rosser: For me, it means that I can have my cake and eat it, too. I’m able to wrestle, and I’m able to coach as well.
–Do you enjoy coaching?
Rosser: I’ve always loved getting every chance I’ve had to coach. Even before STRONG I would give back in my free time and do seminars. I love this business, and I want to give back.
–So you feel you want to provide for the future.
Rosser: There’s a saying- you never see a U-HAUL behind a Hearse. You can’t take it with you, y’know? But you can leave it better than what it was. Here in LA there are a lot of wrestling schools you can go to, and I encourage that, but NJPW Academy is something really special.
–What else separates the Academy from a full time LA Dojo training regimen?
Rosser: Well, it’s a 12 week program, two sessions a week. That doesn’t give you all that the full time LA Dojo offers, but whether your goal is NXT, WWE, New Japan, or even if it’s just doing this for a hobby, we’re going to give you the tools to get there and then it’s up to you.
–Can you sum up what your coaching philosophy is?
Rosser: I’m not looking to break you, I’m looking to make you. There’s room for everyone at the finish line.
–You’ll be coaching the advanced class, along with KUSHIDA- what do you see yourself working on?
Rosser: Well, first thing that people can expect if they sign up is that cleanliness is godliness for me. There’s a state of the art facility here, it’s very clean, and we’ll keep it clean. But we’ll be doing a lot of the little things, a lot of the in between, the details. A lot of footwork, endurance, physical fitness, and a lot beyond the ring as well. We’ll be doing promo class for example.
–Promo class seems different from a traditional Japanese Dojo model.
Rosser: But it’s important, you know, especially in America to be able to speak when you have a microphone in your hand or a camera in your face. I’m not a huge promo guy, but I’m able to speak coherently, and have a beginning, middle and end to what I’m saying. And I’m able to be myself at this point of my career. What you see is what you get, and if I stutter, I stutter, so what? It took me so long to be able to get comfortable with speaking, and I want to help with that, because now whenever I get the chance to do media for NJPW and STRONG, my hand is the first to go up, and everybody knows that.
I’m looking to be your biggest cheerleader
–How do you see yourself working with KUSHIDA?
Rosser: Well, it’s me and him in the advanced class, and DKC and Bateman in the beginners. We have different styles, but I’ve seen him coach at his seminars that did really well. I spoke to everyone that came that day, there’s so much we can cover, but we just don’t have the time. With the 12 week program we do, and whatever you want to do we’ll help you be good at it. We’ll be doing all we can do to make sure you’re polished, seasoned, and ready to be looked at, by NJPW or for the LA Dojo, or for AEW and WWE. The sky’s the limit.
–So to make it easier to understand, the LA Dojo is a permanent commitment along the lines of what The DKC, or Alex Coughlin, Clark Connors and so on underwent, while Academy is perhaps a little more holistic in a sense?
Rosser: Yeah, absolutely. For me, I’ll already be dealing with advanced guys, so I’m going to be looking really closely at the details. Your footwork, your presentation, all that. I’m looking to be your biggest cheerleader. At the end of the day, people that win want to see other people win. I was coached by Dr. Tom Pritchard, and he always used to say that wrestling is just like ice cream. You might like Rocky Road, I might like Cookies and Cream, Kevin Kellly might like Mint Choc Chip, but it’s all ice cream. So there’s different ways of striking, attacking the body or telling your story, and I want to help people perfect their flavour.
–And it’s a rare chance to learn from people with such diverse experience. You spent a long time in the WWE system and then transitioned to NJPW STRONG, while KUSHIDA has been through Mexico, Canada, Noge and everywhere in between.
Rosser: Yeah, and I think we’ve both developed a level of patience through our time in this business. Some people are good teachers, and some are great wrestlers but not so great at actually passing that knowledge on. At the end of the day, patience is key, and I want to be able to pass on what I’ve learned. That way we’ll all get better- at the end of the day, if this is your career, or just a weekend hobby, we want you to be good at it.
–One more thing before we finish- every single time STRONG comes up in Japanese conversation, whether its fans or wrestlers like Tanahashi, they always talk about getting Mr. No Days Off in Japan. Any chance in 2023?
Rosser: Absolutely. Hopefully in the summer time, but in the meantime I have to put my head down and keep working. Patience is a virtue, so we’ll see, but when it happens you’ll know about it (laughs).
–A little tournament tends to happen in the summer…
Rosser: If Lawlor can do it, Mr. No Days Off can! (laughs)