When you get a look at a tag team like War Machine, they evoke a lot of the same emotions as classic '80s and '90s tag teams like Demolition and the Legion of Doom. They're big, intimidating, scary guys who've taken to wearing war paint to the ring.
They can certainly throw down with the best of 'em, but it's their in-ring versatility, willingness to take risks and charisma that's taken them from a good, up-and-coming tag team to one of the standout duos in all of professional wrestling. They came together in 2014 after facing off in the finals of Ring of Honor's Top Prospect Tournament, and after a devastating injury put Rowe out for much of the year, they simply persevered.
War Machine was already on the rise by the time they earned their first Ring of Honor tag title reign in early 2016, but things reached an entirely different level with their first shot competing for New Japan Pro Wrestling during their World Tag League tournament.
In April, War Machine won the IWGP tag team championships and competed in a number of big events during NJPW tours that followed. By June, when they faced the Guerrillas of Destiny in a high-profile match on one of their biggest shows of the year, Dominion, they received an impassioned response from the Japanese crowd.
They ultimately lost that match, and the titles, but Ray Rowe and Hanson are in the midst of a two-week run that has once again thrust them into the spotlight. After a three-team whirlwind of a match at Ring of Honor's Best in the World pay-per-view last weekend against The Young Bucks and Best Friends (Beretta and Chuck Taylor), War Machine gets their rematch against Guerrillas of Destiny as part of the first-ever NJPW G1 Special on Saturday in Long Beach, California.
ESPN spoke to Rowe and Hanson just before they headed to Lowell for that Ring of Honor show about what lay ahead for them in the weeks to come.
ESPN: What has the past year been like?
Ray Rowe: I know personally that ever since the very beginning of my career, since 2003 when I very first stepped in a wrestling ring, I wanted to wrestle in Japan. Going over there for the tournament and getting some momentum, coming back for Honor Rising, and then obviously winning the IWGP titles, has literally been a dream come true. My trainer gave me New Japan tapes, G1 tapes, and some Super Juniors. Stuff like that, Japanese style, influenced me at every stage of my career, and to now be able to be there and be a part of that history is really, really mind blowing.
Hanson: Very similar with me. I always wanted to go to Japan, which is crazy. I always thought that I would do well in Japan, if given the opportunity. Ray and I have been given this opportunity and we've started to do well. It's really surreal to be a part of it and to feel the audience just taking to us. I always thought I'd do well, but I never knew how it would feel. Everything just coming together over there has been absolutely amazing and surreal altogether.
ESPN: At NJPW Dominion, you could definitely hear the crowd, you could feel it. What was that like for you to be a part of that such a big show, and for you to feel that reaction and energy?
Rowe: It's crazy because throughout the history of Japanese wrestling, the traditional dynamic has been the Japanese babyface, the Japanese hero, versus the foreign villain. Whether it was the luchadores from Mexico, or the American guys coming in, you're always placed, traditionally, as the heel role, as the bad guy. For us to organically have this support grown from the audience is a really, really unique and really, really amazing feeling.
When you come out, and all eyes are on you, and there's 12,000 screaming people getting behind you, it's cliché to say, but you're invincible. Nothing that happens to you can cause any pain. You literally feed off that energy. It's almost indescribable. I feel bad because we're trying to do this interview, but it's hard to put it to words.
Hanson: That's constantly what I say -- it's indescribable .... Even if we rewind back to when we won the titles at Sakura Genesis, when we were wrestling two Japanese legends, New Japan legends [Hiroyoshi] Tenzan and [Satoshi] Kojima, and to feel the audience. Maybe [they weren't] feeling so well for us in the beginning, but as the match went on and by the finish, just out of their seats excited for us. It gives you confidence.
Rowe: Yeah, I think it's an interesting dynamic with us. Because of social media, I feel like the Japanese audience is connecting with us in a way that maybe they've never connected with the American audience, because we've maybe never had that type of platform at that level of connection. We've talked to these guys at meet and greets, and at autograph signings, or at a train station when people stop us. They love that we love Japan. They see our pictures of us going out and doing tourist things like going to visit cat cafes, or owl cafes or temples or castles. Fans are coming up to us now or they're sending us messages on Twitter or they're emailing us and they're sending us ideas like, "Hey, when you come to Osaka, you should go and visit this temple, you know. Do [you] want somebody to take you around, you know? Can we show you this local food?" They can see how much we enjoy being in Japan, and how much we enjoy exploring Japan. I think that has made them maybe connect to us on a deeper level.
- Raymond Rowe (@RAYMONDxROWE) June 12, 2017
ESPN: Part of your appeal is this sort of evolving look that you guys have adopted. There was first war paint and then, of late, you added these really cool helmets. Can you speak to how the look and the feel of War Machine has evolved, especially of late?
Rowe: I'm very, very big on Nordic and Viking history, and styles and culture. I've got Viking runes tattooed on my body. It's something that's a very big part of my personal mythos. The more that we've evolved War Machine, the more we've felt this Viking influence, and just put it on display. As Hanson and I came together, it was a blending of my style of wrestling, his style of wrestling, my personal approach and presentation, and blending us together. As this is happening, as we've grown together and as we've become better and better friends in a more cohesive unit, we've built off of each other's creativity. We maybe take a little bit of my Viking stuff, a little bit of his larger-than-life hero persona, and have created this really cool thing.
I have a lot of contacts because I worked for the Texas Renaissance Festival for a season because I couldn't wrestle when I was hurt after my motorcycle accident. I couldn't do anything physical, and I picked up a lot of things that I've been doing for five or six years. I dressed up as vikings and barbarians. I've got a lot of friends who costume and who make armor and do all that stuff. I've pulled from that side of my life, and I'm now putting it into wrestling and just having this creative outlet -- I know that we can do it better than anyone in the world. People can try to steal our moves. People can try to copy our look, or emulate us in certain aspects, but I know that because of the reality of who we are and because of where we're coming from, we are more true to that design, in that look, in that persona than anybody else. That's the extension of who we are in real life.
Hanson: Ray nailed that one.
In this rise to the top in ROH and New Japan, you're getting into the ring with a lot of different teams. A match with the Guerrillas of Destiny is not like a match with the Young Bucks, and yet you've got two title shots against those two teams on big shows for both companies. What is that like?
Rowe: The fans, thanks to New Japan, thanks to a lot of the stuff in Ring of Honor, they've gotten to watch as War Machine has evolved. I think fans had a preconceived notion about who we are, or what we're capable of based on what we look like -- and then we go out and wrestle, and change their minds completely.
I feel like the Young Bucks are a very good foil for War Machine as a tag team. They are, in many ways, everything that we're not. We can be polar opposites sometimes, but at the same time, we're both very athletic, dynamic, creative teams. To be given that outlet, to be given that platform, like Hanson was talking about, is why we're able to create something truly special with matchups like this.
Hanson: For me, Lowell's where I spent the majority of my career wrestling. I'm pretty much in my hometown. There are a lot of elements there that are exciting for me. Mainly, it's going to be the [pay-per-view] platform and the opportunity.