Kenny Omega's Journey from Canadian Junior Hockey Goalie to Wrestling Superstar
Like many Canadians, Tyson Smith played hockey growing up. But his love for wrestling eventually took him to Japan, where he became Kenny Omega and the hottest thing in the world of wrestling.
Photo courtesy New Japan Pro Wrestling
If you're looking for the best professional wrestler in the world, you might not find him on national television every Monday night. Rather, you might want to start looking in Japan. If you can't find him there, traipse through eight inches of snow to get to a cottage in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That's where you'll find 33-year-old Tyson Smith, professionally known as Kenny Omega, one of the best—if not the best—performers working today.
By the end of 2016, it was totally reasonable to argue that he could be considered the best wrestler on the planet. Indeed, there was plenty to back up that hypothesis. On a macro level, he was already a main event performer in New Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion lauded for being home of the best pure wrestling anywhere in the world. Within the world of Japanese wrestling, he'd already won Match of the Year several times. His performances were so impressive that the company decided to bestow on him an honour that no other non-Japanese wrestler had ever received, as Omega won the G-1 Climax in 2016, NJPW's most prestigious annual tournament.
Then 2017 came along, and Omega's stardom ballooned even bigger after an epic Jan. 4 match with Kazuchika Okada that went down as an instant classic—perhaps the greatest ever—and was celebrated by wrestling fans worldwide.
It's been a crazy journey for Omega. There was a time, not long ago, though, when he struggled to even get bookings on independent shows. Flights from his home in Winnipeg were prohibitively expensive for promoters, who could use performers from almost anywhere else in North America for much less. Paying more than they would pay their top talent simply in travel expenses for a WWE developmental dropout just wasn't worth it.
But these days, Omega can't stop his phone from ringing. He doesn't have time to take any of the bookings—not from top American independents, and not even from the WWE, where many thought he would make his debut at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view at the end of January.
For now, it appears he'll stay in Japan as the one of the biggest things in pro wrestling.
Prior to becoming a pro wrestler, Omega was a talented goaltender in the Winnipeg minor hockey scene. He was called up to the junior ranks from his club team, the St. Boniface Seals, at the age of 16, and not long after, was a scholarship candidate at Bemidji State University, a renowned hockey program which has produced NHLers such as Joel Otto.
Needless to say, a former goalie knows a thing or two about knee pain, as his two past operations can confirm. So when Omega is "selling" a leg injury, he doesn't simply grab his limb and grimace the way a standard fare pro wrestler might. Instead, he goes to the ring apron or the middle rope, and tries to stretch it, not unlike the way Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop tried to in the middle of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
Those types of subtle actions produce a glaring difference between him and most other performers working right now.
A good portion of Omega's allure is rooted in his radiating charisma and his willingness and ability to perform impressive athletic feats. But it also stems from his ability to convey the proper gravity of those feats and illustrating his theoretical pain—in wrestling parlance, selling. Even if the elements of a wrestling match are performed without true injury all the time, the general idea is to act out a physical struggle. In order to do so, wrestlers use a variety of tactics that would never make sense in real life. The strength of a truly great performer, then, can be measured in their ability to make the viewer ignore the inherent silliness of a pro wrestling match.
"There are a lot of people coming into professional wrestling with a clean slate. They've never done anything, they just had the genetics to build a good body, but they've never felt the pain and the struggle like a real competitive athlete would feel in another sport. So they don't know exactly how to sell a leg," Omega told VICE Sports. "They're being taught this professional wrestling way by these old guys who also didn't have any sort of sports background, as to how to sell a leg. I feel like when you sell that way, you come across looking like a professional wrestling fan that became a professional wrestler, rather than someone who takes pride in their work. I would rather not insult the intelligence of real athletes that might be watching what we do."
That's not to say Omega hasn't done some absolutely outlandish things inside a wrestling ring as well. This is the same wrestler who once began a match against Bryan Danielson with a thumb war, has wrestled a blow-up doll in a competitive match, and had a competitive 10-minute exhibition match with a 9-year-old girl in which he willingly "sold" for her offense. While these incidents are several years old, he still occasionally comes to the ring with a broom—a nod to his moniker, The Cleaner—and sweeps the floor to the beat of his entrance music and sings the opera tones into the broomstick as if it were a microphone.
Omega's theory is that there can be room for comedy in pro wrestling, just not complacent storytelling of any kind.
"In the end, a story is a story is a story. I don't want to just have a wrestling match. Because what is a wrestling match? It's nothing," said Omega. "The people I'm trying to wrestle for are the everyday people. The everyday person that has a wide array of likes and dislikes. The type of person that would go to a movie theatre and they don't always want to see one genre."
When it comes to dislikes, one of Omega's is the current state of professional wrestling. He doesn't count himself as a fan of wrestling, and hasn't in quite some time. The marriage between Omega and his vocation, both as a performer and as a fan, hasn't always been a happy one.
Omega started to drift away from the North American brand of pro wrestling around 1997 after watching a match between Taka Michinoku and The Great Sasuke on the WWF In Your House: Canadian Stampede pay-per-view event. The two Japanese legends had been imported by the company to kickstart a light heavyweight division, and for many domestic viewers—including Omega—it was the first exposure to a completely different brand of wrestling.
He began ordering Japanese wrestling tapes to his home in Winnipeg, and became immersed in the Puroresu (Japanese for "pro wrestling") culture.
As a wrestler himself, he did eventually land a developmental contract with the WWE, where he was sent to Deep South Wrestling in Georgia to hone his skills and be evaluated by company executives. It wouldn't be long before he found that the type of wrestling he loved was not being performed there, and quickly became disenchanted enough to leave.
"I still feel to this day that wrestling isn't at where it could or should be. A lot of people watch wrestling and they're entertained by what they see on TV, but they don't necessarily respect what we do on an athletic level and even on an entertainment level. There are still a lot of people that look at us like a traveling circus," Omega said.
"They will come to shows and events and take their family when they're performing, but aside from that, wrestling gets no extra thought. And even when they're watching on TV, yeah, it might be something you'll sit with your buddies and you'll have a bowl of popcorn and crack open a beer, you'll laugh at the ridiculousness. But there'll never be a real emotional attachment to what you're seeing on the TV. You'll never feel something more than that."
After he left his developmental contract with WWE, Omega took a full-time job at Costco and returned to the independent wrestling scene. In order to make dates he was scheduled on, he'd take shifts nobody else wanted and trade last-minute spots so he could fly away and wrestle. The cost of flying Omega anywhere from Winnipeg was generally more expensive than travel accommodations for other performers, which meant his paydays weren't always tremendous.
His life circumstances, combined with the lingering disappointment that the Everest of pro wrestling, WWE, was not somewhere he wanted to be, pushed him in the direction of retirement. He took up jiu-jitsu, began competing, and contemplated a jump to mixed martial arts.
"I was thinking I'd do a farewell tour locally (in Winnipeg). But then I ended up having a match with AJ Styles. It was because of that match that I had realized there were people that sort of wrestled the way I wished wrestling was. It gave me another reason to believe in wrestling again, that there must be other people like this in the world," said Omega.
That match vs. Styles helped catch the attention of promoters in Japan, and soon thereafter, Omega began his odyssey as a full-time wrestler overseas—but not before a few more months of stacking Costco shelves by day and taking transcontinental flights by night.
The Styles connection couldn't be more perfect. Several years ago, Styles also became disenchanted with his role in TNA Wrestling, the No. 2 or 3 promotion in North America, and went on to become a mainstay in NJPW. Styles was the leading member of the Bullet Club, which Omega later joined, before eventually being lured to the WWE where he is now the company's heavyweight champion.
Among die-hard wrestling fans, Styles is generally considered to be the other candidate for best wrestler in the world. Though he hasn't had a five-star match since 2005, he consistently turns in big matches top wrestling critic Dave Meltzer rates 4.5 (out of 5) or higher. There is also the consideration that Styles' schedule with the WWE necessitates him wrestling nearly 300 days a year.
"When I watch Kenny's great matches this year, in every one of those instances I thought this is the most talented wrestler in the business. With AJ my thought always was, 'God, every week on TV he comes through,' [and] sometimes against opponents that aren't that great," Meltzer told VICE Sports.
"I think that Omega is more spectacular than AJ. With AJ it's like, man, this guy is so good. It's not like the moves are out of this world, but as the match is going on you're thinking this is so good. Whereas with Kenny you have that same thing, but you also have those three or four crazy spots, combined with freaky athletic ability."
Given that pro wrestling is predetermined, merely tallying up wins and losses isn't a fair indicator of a performer's talent level, or even success. Not unlike traditional art forms such as literature or theatre, the wealthiest and most popular in wrestling aren't always considered the best by their industry's critics.
Meltzer, a 57-year-old journalist based in San Jose, is wrestling's equivalent of the New York Times review section, or Siskel and Ebert. Meltzer has been covering the sport since 1983, operating the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. He's best known for his star rating of matches, on a scale of one to five, with the highest rating generally being very difficult to come by. To put it in perspective, WWE as a whole has produced just five 5-star matches since 1994.
On Aug. 13, in the semifinals of the G1 Climax, Omega notched his first 5-star match in a breathtaking battle with Tetsuya Naito. In total, he turned in five matches rated 4.75 or better in 2016.
"What's more important to me, less than the match rating itself, I mean, I feel like, and I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I feel like at any point in time I can have a highly-rated match with almost anyone, because I know how these rating scales play. And I know how a lot of internet fans view matches, what they're looking for and how they rate things," Omega explained. "What's more important is getting these matches highly rated and critically acclaimed by wrestling in my preferred style."
If one were to use those star-match statistics alone as an instrument to argue Omega was the best in the world, it would have been a solid case, but one that could have been countered with other wrestlers' achievements and turned back into a more subjective debate. But if ever someone had a trump card, a way to give a subjective debate in a completely fictitious world a proper conclusion, he now has it.
Omega opened 2017 with a match against Kazuchika Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 that was given six stars out of five by Meltzer.
In other words, the greatest match in the history of professional wrestling.
"I've actually yet to watch the match back," Omega said. "I'm afraid to watch the match back because I've never actually had a match where it was so positively received from all corners of the wrestling community. It is almost too positive to the point where I'm wondering, is something up here? I love a compliment just as much as the next person, but I'm also pretty shy, so when I'm put on the spot like that and people around me only have nice things to say, I'm starting to feel like I'm the butt end of a joke I'm not in on."
For it to be some kind of joke, the notoriously fickle wrestling community would have actually had to get together and decide to agree on something. Perhaps the best indicator of the match's brilliance, however, is the fact that actual wrestlers—even those contracted by WWE—have publicly praised it. Though in recent years the company has acknowledged the existence of NJPW, and has pillaged some of its top talent, as a general rule, contracted employees are encouraged to pretend like that wrestling universe's walls stand where the WWE ring ropes are strung.
"At 38 minutes, I was like, 'OK, this is a classic.' And eight minutes later I thought this may have been the best match I'd ever seen," said Meltzer, who has never before officially given a match six stars.
"There's a bunch of different types of great matches. There's the crazy spots match; there's the long, drawn out dramatic match; there's the athletic cool-moves match; the real hard-hitting match; there's the world title match; there's the giant big-show-of-the-year match. This match had every element. It was all of those things."
Over the course of roughly 46 minutes told the story of the best wrestler from Japan and the best wrestler born outside of Japan battling for what they felt was their right to be the face of the company. In real life, Okada was given a contract to the equivalent of $2.2 million annually last year, a fact played up in his character, "The Rainmaker," who enters the arena to a blizzard of dollar bills. Omega, who heads up the Bullet Club and Elite factions, represents the outsider trying to take NJPW global and change its landscape. In real life, there's no question the bilingual Canadian is the perfect candidate to do that. The 10,000 new subscribers to NJPW's online streaming service prior to Wrestle Kingdom—with 5,500 of them coming from the United States—suggest that his tenure as foreign ambassador has been a rousing success.
Rumours have swirled that WWE is looking to capitalize on this, and is actively courting Omega. Some of that has been fuelled by Omega himself, who tweeted that he would be "leaving Japan" days after the match, before clarifying that he was simply taking a brief hiatus. The company's biggest star, John Cena, also posted a photo of Kenny without explanation on his Instagram page, followed by a series of cryptic photos meant to allude to Omega. Another top star, Seth Rollins, said on the company's website that he wanted to see Kenny in the Royal Rumble this year, which of course, did not happen.
Though Omega has claimed in the past that he has somewhat of a standing invite to head to WWE, there is no indication that it will actually happen any time soon—or that he would even want to go at all.
"There are certainly factors, people there that I feel like I should tangle with, that would be an intriguing story," Omega said of WWE. "It's up to them. I wasn't able to tell my greatest stories in New Japan until they trusted me to run with the ball, either. It's a two-way street. If they give me a blank slate, and they give me a brush and they say paint your greatest picture ever, take as much time as you need and use whatever colours you want, I can guarantee them that I will give them a classic. However, if they give me a Post-it note and a piece or charcoal and say here's five minutes, I'll do what I can, but it may not be a classic."
There was a time when Omega felt that the wrestling world didn't share, and would never understand, his vision for what a match could be. It might still be that the remainder of the wrestling world doesn't understand how he puts it together, but they know they like the finished product.
Fans want to see him in WWE because they want to see a Kenny Omega classic on television twice or three times weekly, and in towns across the world on a nightly basis. But would that much exposure, combined with the constraints put on WWE performers stylistically, blur the vision he has for what professional wrestling can be? Would a leap to the mainstream turn him from wrestling's version of Orwell to its Stephen King?
Perhaps for now, the appreciation for Omega will come from those in the know, the wrestling intelligentsia. But the appreciation and study of his work will last long after he hangs up the boots.