Behind (and under) the Timekeeper’s Table: Makoto Abe’s many hats (1/2)

Behind the timekeeper’s table!

While only the eagle eyed might see his face on NJPW World, you’ll certainly know his voice. Makoto Abe has been giving ring introductions in NJPW for the past six years, but that’s not where his duties end. From keeping time and ringing the bell (and getting squashed by EVIL) to even setting up the ring and ringside area for the matches, Abe has many hats, and many talents. We sat down with the man himself to get insight into his journey to NJPW.

EVIL’s an occupational hazard…

–So we have a lot to talk about in this interview.

Abe: We sure do!

–I want us to get into your work here in NJPW, but first of all, a lot of fans have been showing concern for you about how you’ve been treated by EVIL of late.

Abe: Ah, yes…

–He seems to single you out for damage while he’s attacking his opponent at ringside.

Abe: He certainly seems to have it in for me. 

–It might go back to October in Makuhari. He blamed you when he and Yujiro lost against SANADA and Naito.

Abe: I don’t get that at all! He lost his match, I don’t see why I’m to blame.

–Did something happen in that match, for him to act the way he did?

Abe: No idea. I said this on Twitter at the time, Naito and SANADA won clean in the middle, I don’t get how that’s my fault somehow.

–Maybe he was offended by the way you announced him somehow?

Abe: I don’t think that’s it… Either way, I’ve been collateral damage ever since. It’s an occupational hazard for sure.

–It seems to be escalating with every match. He’ll even go for you twice in one match. Are you doing OK, physically?

Abe: The first time he did it, it was in Makuhari Messe. I took a spill backward and rolled over and just smacked my back on the concrete. I didn’t know what was coming, and it isn’t like I take bumps for a living. So it really knocked the stuffing out of me. 

–Everyone’s pretty worried about you…

Abe: I’m OK, just about. When it happens, it hurts for sure, but the shock and the adrenaline are there. What really hurts is waking up the next day. I think ‘hey what did I do to my neck, what did I do to my shoulder…. ah yeah…’ (laughs)

I know they’re heading my way, but I’m frozen to the spot… 

–Ring announcers are in the firing line a lot. Bad Luck Fale would often go after you, and Kimihiko Ozaki as well.

Abe: Oh yeah. Fale would hit me, kick me, throw me around…A guy Fale’s size, he doesn’t mess around. I don’t get why he went after me either.

–Well, with Ozaki there’s a theory there…

Abe: Ah, yeah, yeah. Okamoto san at Tokyo Sports said this once, that on one show on the loop, Ozaki screwed up and called Fale ‘Tama Tonga’. I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of that and find out whether it’s really true though. 

–You eventually developed evasive maneuvers for Fale.

Abe: Haha! I did! The trick is to call him last and get out of the ring realllly quick (laughs).

–But with EVIL, you can’t really escape the bodies coming at you.

Abe: Right! When they go to the outside, I know in the back of my mind they’re coming, but even as they get close, I can’t move. I’m rooted to the spot. It’s like being in a car accident, I think, you’re paralysed with fear.

–Referees are conditioned to an extent, to take that punishment, but has anything prepared you for this, in your career before NJPW?

Abe: Oh, I’ve been hit with bullropes, kendo sticks, the lot. One second it’s ‘huh?’ and next you’re backstage coming to, heheh. To an extent it comes with the territory, but I’ve never been more wary of anyone than I am of EVIL right now. 

The sweet Butcher 

–Well, let’s get back to the beginning. You actually started your ring announcing career back in 2003, for All Japan Pro-Wrestling.

Abe: Yeah. January 5, 2003 in Nagano, that was my first time. Just being in front of a lot of people was terrifying. 20-30 people is one thing, but a big gymnasium, in front of all those people, I really didn’t have much confidence at all.

–It seems hard to imagine now, you having stage fright.

Abe: When they first asked me to do it, I kind of squirreled out of it for about six months. I figured they wouldn’t ask again, but then Mrs. Baba came to me direct. ‘You’re doing this, aren’t you?’. I couldn’t say no, so I said yes and off we went.

–You don’t cross the boss. So you were initially part of the ring crew?

Abe: Yeah. I really didn’t picture myself doing ring announcing.

–So you got picked for your voice?

Abe: I don’t think so! I think they needed a new ring announcer and they were just looking for someone they could pressure into doing it (laughs). I was 25, a new face, so it wasn’t like I could easily say no.

–So it wasn’t like you were gunning for the spot. But you announced a legend that first night, didn’t you?

Abe: Abdullah the Butcher! Yeah, he was so sweet. We were in that freezing locker room in Nagano; his match ended right before intermission. I introduced myself to him, and he went ‘ah, great job! Nice call!’ His hand was covered in blood, but he used it to shake mine all the same! (laughs)

–But that must have made you pretty proud, on your first day.

Abe: I was over the moon! It really made me think hey, maybe I can do this after all (laughs).

–You suddenly went from having no confidence to having a bunch.

Abe: He instantly changed things for me. It went from being a job to being fun at that point. I just got so much more involved with everything I could in the business after that, I only regret not diving in sooner than I did.

–He really changed your life. 

Abe: Oh yeah. I still kick myself for weasling out of it for half a year.

–Was it difficult speaking on the mic at first?

Abe: Well, I’d done little bits warming up to ring announcing. I used to work the merch tables, so I was used to calling people over ‘hey grab your T-shirts here!’, and I’d done PA announcements before the matches started. So speaking on the mic wasn’t that tough.

–So there you go! You probably were scouted because of your voice. 

Abe: Oh, I don’t know! Mrs. Baba isn’t with us anymore, so I guess we’ll never know, but I’ll be grateful for that opportunity forever.

Muto family dinners


–You came into AJPW right when Keiji Muto became president of the company, so you were really coming up in the Muto era of All Japan.

Abe: Right. Giant Baba had died not long before, and the whole NOAH split with Mitsuharu Misawa had happened. I joined in the middle of this huge departure.

–You were close with Muto.

Abe: I was. When he left AJPW and started WRESTLE-1 in 2013, I went with him, but I only statyed for a couple of years. After that we grew apart, but when we went to MSG I was able to announce him in the opening rumble, which was pretty nostalgic. Then I announced his appearance during Tiger Hattori’s retirement ceremony last year.

–He’s a special figure, then. Obviously I was a huge fan growing up, and he did so much for me. It’s funny, he lived nearby, and we’d often go home from the office together back in the day, so I’ve had a fair few dinners with the Muto family. He took a shine to me.

I took a good look at myself after ten years and decided I wanted more

–Then you joined NJPW in May 2015. how did that all come about?

Abe: Well, WRESTLE-1 weren’t running all that often, and they weren’t drawing huge crowds, exactly. I didn’t want my career to end like that. I wanted to try my hand on a bigger stage, travel around the country more. I reached out to a friend I have in NJPW about coming here, and here I am.

–So you approached the company rather than the other way around.

Abe: Right. In WRESTLE-1 I was older than most of the people there, and it was definitely comfortable, but ending everything like that wouldn’t have been right. So I decided to take the jump at 37, started at Best of the Super Jr. that year.

–Back in the day among fans there was definitely a loyalty to All or New Japan. Which were you growing up?

Abe: You know, maybe it’s a cop out to say both, but I was really watching everything I could get my hands on. It was NJPW that really opened the door for me though. I was in middle school, eighth grade, and I remember being sick one weekend, and just resting up at home, flipping through the channels one afternoon. Then there was World Pro-Wrestling, the Three Musketeers doing their thing, and it completely changed my ideas about wrestling.

–They really shifted your perception.

Abe: Yeah. It was a completely different flavour, a different presentation to the prime time shows in the ’80s. I was hooked in. This was around the time of the first January 4 Tokyo Dome card, in ’92. They showed the matches live on TV, and I recorded it on VHS and watched that tape over and over.

–That night, Riki Choshu wrestled Tatsumi Fujinami in the main event. A double title match for the IWGP and Greatest 18 titles. The match went over the TV time and the live feed cut out.

Abe: Yes! This was in the days before the Internet, so it was a real ‘what! Who the hell won?’ thing. I had to go to the store and buy a newspaper the next day! That and the sight of Great Muta tagging with Sting, those were really big memories from that card.

I was terrified

–The first time you announced for NJPW was June 28 2015, on the Road to Dominion. Do you have many memories of that night?

Abe: I remember it well. To have started in All Japan and now to be announcing New Japan matches… It was really nerve racking. The first match I had to call was a singles match with David Finlay and Jyushin Thunder Liger. I was just really nervous thinking about what the atmosphere of a New Japan event might feel like from the ring.

–There would have been at least a few fans who would’ve known you beforehand.

Abe: Right. I was worried some old guys might heckle, like ‘ we don’t need this guy here!’ kind of thing. I was under a lot of stress. Plus to tell the truth, money wasn’t great for me when I came into New Japan. 


Abe: When you start at a company you get paid one month in arrears right? I couldn’t afford to buy a drink before the show my whole first tour. I went and filled a bottle up with water from the tap in the toilets. 

–That’s tough.

Abe: We’d just had a baby, and everyone knows how expensive that whole thing is. I’d only just come into the company too, so it wasn’t like I could walk up to someone and ask if they could spot me a few hundred Yen.


Abe: And in all that they told me all of a sudden ‘OK, we need you to ring announce on this card’, and I didn’t have anything to wear. We just about scraped enough money together at home for me to buy an outfit, and I still have that outfit now. 

–A sentimental outfit. 

Abe: It’s just a cheap suit! But it’s important to me. I wore it to call my first IWGP Heavyweight Championship match, and when I called Madison Square Garden.

–When you first came in the NJPW locker room you must have caught up with a lot of the wrestlers who moved from All to New Japan.

Abe: Yeah! Especially (Satoshi) Kojima. I was working with him for eight years, and when he left All Japan in 2010, I really thought I’d never get the chance to announce one of his matches again. But the weird thing is, it was nice to meet Kojima again, but meeting his dad again: that was the emotional reunion (laughs).


Abe: yeah. When Kojima left, his dad came to Korakuen Hall, and he went out of his way to thank me on his behalf. I told him ‘you never say never in this business, I might see you again’ and sure enough…


Abe: So when I saw Kojima’s dad in the Korakuen lobby again, I made sure to chat with him. I was so happy to see him again!

It’s had such a huge effect on my life

–So how does New Japan compare to the other companies you’ve worked in?

Abe: There’s a lot more attention to detail here. My experience before NJPW definitely helped, but in New Japan, everything to the tiniest detail is thought about and it all matters. Even putting up the ring, there’s a lot of attention being paid.

–There was quite a bit of crossover between New and All Japan while you were in AJPW. Like All Together in 2011, or the 40th anniversary Ryogoku card in July 2012.

Abe: Right. Through those events, I knew (Chairman Naoki) Sugabayashi, and some of the ring crew before I joined. They welcomed me in when I did come into the company. In the end though, it’s definitely had a huge effect on my life. 

–A bit turning point personally and professionally.

Abe: I’m just so grateful every day. Thanks to NJPW, I’ve been around the country, and I’ve worked twice as much as I did before. Getting to call matches in the Tokyo Dome, that’s childhood dream stuff. 

–Were you nervous before your first Dome call?

Abe: Oh, of course. Though I’d actually gotten to call there when I was still working for All Japan. When it was Yuji Nagata and Wataru Inoue vs Masayuki Kono and Masakatsu Funaki. The match where Funaki got his cheekbone broken by Nagata’s kick.

–Wrestle Kingdom 6.

Abe: That’s right. But when I was officially part of New Japan, the first Tokyo Dome card was something else entirely. Like I’d finally made it.

Metric conversion

–How does the actual process of ring announcing differ between New and All Japan?

Abe: That’s a good question. Most of it’s pretty similar, announcing the time elapsed, that kind of thing. When guys go outside in All Japan though, they don’t call the referee’s count… What else? Ah, yeah in New Japan, everything is centimeters and kilos, but in All Japan, everybody’s in pounds.

–Ah yes. In the old days it was all imperial units in NJPW as well.

Abe: In the ’80s, right? Then Kero (legendary announcer Tanaka) pointed out, hey in Japan we use centimeters and kilos. If we give weights in pounds, nobody really understands what that means. I always felt that way when I was calling weights in pounds. Especially when you get to the super heavyweight guys, it’s more impressive to a Japanese fan that someone weigh 200 kgs than if you say they weigh 400lbs or whatever.

–Was it Fumihito Kihara who showed you the ropes in AJPW?

Abe: He taught me a ton. A lot of little things, especially when it comes to timing.


Abe: Yeah. If you have a stopwatch with you, you’ll know I don’t do the five, ten minute call right on five or ten minutes. I’ll be a little early or a little late, it’s all about watching what’s happening in the ring and getting a feel for the match. A badly timed call can really throw the fans off and bring them out of the match. Once Muto got really hot at me for ruining the flow with my time calls. 

–Ah, you have to have a wrestler’s instinct to an extent.

Abe: Exactly. If the crowd are getting behind this massive strike exchange, and you cover that up with ‘ten minutes gone!’ that just ruins the moment.

–Good point. It would be weird to have a time call right as Kojima’s throwing those machine gun chops.

Abe: Right. And when you know what he does when he goes for that signature spot and that call, well you know not to ruin it. There’s a little bit of playing it by ear, and a little bit of prediction going on. 

More in part 2!