Kenny Omega Is Trying to Make Pro Wrestling Bigger and Better Than Ever
And he might be the perfect guy to do it. Omega's among the best in-ring tacticians in the world, the face of New Japan Wrestling's global expansion, and helped orchestrate a super match against WWE legend Chris Jericho.
Screen capture via YouTube
Kenny Omega lifted Tetsuya Naito up on his shoulders, looking to hit his finisher, the One-Winged Angel. It's the most protected move in wrestling, and if Omega could hit it, the G1 Climax—and a title shot against Kazuchika Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom for a second year in a row—would be his. Naito slipped down Omega's back, hooked his head, and delivered his Destino reverse DDT, without the somersault. It would take two more Destinos for Naito to put Omega away, finishing a tremendous G1 tournament and a brutal, hard-hitting final that top wrestling critic Dave Meltzer gave 5.75 stars, the fifth-highest rated match ever.
This was Naito's second G1 victory, and the near culmination of a five-year story that saw him become the most layered and nuanced character in New Japan, a man fueled entirely by bitterness at having lost this same main event respect in 2013. Naito had won the G1 and a title match with Okada that year, too, only for New Japan fans to vote that Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi would be Wrestle Kingdom 8's main event, setting Naito down a path that included a long stop in Mexico, Los Ingobernables de Japon, and a half-decade redemption arc that once again has him fighting for the title on Japan's biggest stage.
Things were less clear for Omega, who had lost in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 a few months prior in an unprecedented six-star match with Okada. The series between the two stood at 1-1-1—they'd fought to a 60-minute draw in June (6.25 stars, the highest-rated Meltzer match of all time), with Omega finally getting his victory during the G1 tournament (6 stars again, giving the pair three of the four best matches ever by Meltzer’s standard)—and if it wasn't an attempt to melt Meltzer's rating system with Okada once more, Omega wouldn't be in the event's biggest match.
Or so it seemed.
Fast-forward to the World Tag League finals in Fukuoka earlier this month, and Omega was once again involved in the hottest angle in all of wrestling. Over a month after he appeared on video to challenge Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, Chris Jericho made a surprise appearance, viciously attacking Omega (and New Japan staff), leaving him a bloody mess a few weeks out from New Japan's biggest event of the year. There is no match, anywhere, with quite the buzz that the once-in-a-lifetime fantasy booking of Alpha vs. Omega has going for it.
For Jericho, it's his latest reinvention in a career defined by an ability to stay on the cutting edge. For Omega, it's the latest step further into the mainstream as the face of New Japan's global expansion. Naito may get defensive given the main event that was pulled out from under him before, but Omega-Jericho has built itself to near equal billing to the championship match that will close the show.
"In my opinion, it's the biggest match in scale and scope. It's just not the actual main event," Omega says, momentarily switching into character. "Of course he's gonna take offense to that, but the proof is in the pudding and facts are just facts. Sometimes you have to just accept your role in the game of life. He's the local legend, that's all he'll be."
It was after Wrestle Kingdom 10 at the top of 2016 when Omega first began shifting into this role. A.J. Styles was on his way to WWE, and New Japan placed a massive bet on Omega to become their top gaijin afterward, having him turn on Styles to take over leadership of the immensely popular Bullet Club stable and moving him from junior heavyweight to heavyweight. A strong promo with a great look and almost unparalleled in-ring ability, Omega was being pushed toward the top of the company's hierarchy right as it set eyes on expanding its footprint outside of Japan.
"This is something, for me, that really means a lot. Not only in my career but for the overall goal that I've had to help New Japan, and make it more of a global force, and another option for people that are interested in watching good wrestling," Omega says. "Especially from the last year, the year 2016, I was given more opportunity to step up and assume more of a dominant role in the company. I've had the opportunity to kind of broaden the horizons of New Japan, kind of showing performances that you can't see anywhere else in the world."
The goal for Omega is not to try to steal fans from WWE, necessarily. There is a sort of barrier to entry for more niche wrestling fandom, WWE being the obvious gateway, and most wrestling fans involved enough to be watching New Japan are also watching ROH, PWG, and other organizations. Growth, then, isn't as much about the old mentality of promotional wars, but about creating new fans or finding fans looking for something different. Omega wants to provide an alternative, and with the quality of match and level of in-ring storytelling that New Japan prides itself on, it certainly stands out as different from the sometimes rote sports entertainment values of the world's top wrestling brand.
New Japan is still figuring out how best to expand its reach, but is offering a TV network in English now and airing Wrestle Kingdom and other marquee events in the U.S. on AXS TV. It also leans heavily on stars like Omega and The Young Bucks to promote the brand through their other endeavors, like the wildly successful Being The Elite web-series. Everyone involved is confident that once they can hook viewers in, they'll stick around.
"A lot of people like watching the stuff that I've done in New Japan, and I'm really happy that people have taken a liking to the style and a liking to the culture and kind of just what New Japan stands for," Omega says. "And I'm kind of doing it in my own original way. I'm not strong style, I'm not old school Japanese style, either—I'm just kind of Kenny Omega style. With the vision that I have, I really feel that we can give something else that people can enjoy watching. We're reaching a whole new audience of people who just want to watch wrestling to have fun."
In the time since Styles' departure, Omega's risen to heights that only a few non-Japanese wrestlers have sustained in the scene, winning the Intercontinental Championship, becoming the first gaijin to win the G1 tournament, and becoming the inaugural IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion.
The introduction of a U.S. Championship wasn't something Omega agreed with initially—there are already a lot of titles—but it represented an important step for the promotion. The first-ever champion was crowned over two days in Long Beach, California, the first time New Japan had independently run events in the United States. Omega, a driving force in New Japan making that leap, was a key piece of the promotional arm for the events, and after he volunteered to work multiple times each day to achieve success, he wound up winning three matches over the two days (two of them earning 4.75 stars, by the way) and the title in the process.
"I really wanted to be a focus of our U.S. shows because I took a lot of pride and passion in growing us in the States. I just knew that if we went to the States, I could count on myself to give my A-plus performance and make sure that anyone that bought a ticket or tuned in to the live AXS show would leave satisfied. So I really wanted to be a big part of that," he says.
"It's exactly what I wanted to do. We kind of showed what I'm bringing to the table, and a very Japanese-esque flair with (Tomohiro) Ishii, and I think it really conveyed well with the American fans that hadn't seen it before."
Wrestle Kingdom feels like the crescendo New Japan's momentum has been building toward. After Omega and the Young Bucks failed to gain enough traction for a cross-promotional match with WWE's The New Day in 2016, Omega would often be asked who a fantasy one-on-one opponent would be. Jericho—along with Styles and John Cena—was always the response, but it seemed incredibly unlikely given Jericho's stated commitment to only ever wrestle for WWE the remainder of his career.
It wasn't as simple as Omega asking New Japan to make it happen and it coming to fruition, but once the idea was floated and both wrestlers grew excited about the possibility, things came together seamlessly.
"New Japan is very understanding, and we've sort of developed over the past two years now a very trusting relationship, where if I believe something is good for the company, good for the goals, good for the business, that they're gonna trust me," Omega says. "Even if it costs an arm and a leg, even if it means kind of changing everything storyline wise. They're very much realizing now how important it is to be sort of a give-and-take relationship with the wrestlers, if it means growing our product."
It's now on Omega and Jericho to deliver. There's little doubt they will. Omega is among the best in-ring tacticians in the world, and Jericho has a legitimate case for being the best of all time. New Japan has made it a No Disqualifications match, opening up even more possibilities. They won't be shooting for star ratings here, though. This is about the story, about the atmosphere, and most of all using the substantial buzz they've generated to show new fans something completely different from what they're used to.
"I really wanted this very unique situation to spark some new interest and sort of reignite that kind of excitement that you don't really feel anymore while watching professional wrestling," Omega says. "Now we have a clash of worlds, a clash of generations, a clash of two people that are from Winnipeg [Manitoba]. It's just something you don't really see and something that no one ever thought they would see.
"Now that we've had this sort of surreal clash, I sort of want to tell the story that has the same degree of surrealness. I really want there to be a very different atmosphere in the ring or in the arena, or even for people watching. I want them to feel that it's a very different atmosphere and something that's very original and may not ever happen again. It's very much in a world of its own."
Omega's next big opportunity to push New Japan to the forefront of professional wrestling comes Jan. 4 at the Tokyo Dome. It might not be the main event, which itself is the culmination of incredible long-term storytelling and character development, but it's the match with the greatest window to hook new fans and give them something new entirely.
"Because of the situation where Chris Jericho is this mega-star coming from, you know, not contracted from WWE but he's coming from WWE, and having all this experience and being the best, that's an opportunity to tell a story that I couldn't tell with any other guy on the New Japan roster," Omega says.
"So that, to me, is a really cool canvas to paint a pretty cool picture, and with Jericho sitting beside me with another brush, it's bound to be pretty interesting, I think."