wrestling / Columns

Kenny Omega is Now The Alpha

June 11, 2018 | Posted by Len Archibald
shows golden kenny omega njpw iwgp champion

There is a storm that has engulfed Lima, Ohio from where I sit. The rain is fascinating my cats, the garden I planted on Monday (for no discernable reason except I had a bout of mania) is getting the liquid nourishment it needs, the thunder, and echoing boom of calm. Yet, the storm that just landed in Osaka, Japan was one of the perfect nature. The choir of the universe embraced in harmonious tones. A love of an art form quenched from fans thirsty for something to cleanse their palette of overcooked mainstream fare.

And to boot, we have entered a new era of professional wrestling. Not one of those “almost” eras where a promotion or act sat on the cusp of breaking out or lit up like fireworks only to fizzle out months later. There is something in the air, a presence haunting over the shoulder, a markish chill that has not resonated in over 20 years. All the wrestling sites are on top of it. YouTube videos are making their rounds about it. Even CBS Sports is covering it, in preparation for the future that lies ahead. Other mainstream outlets will follow once the buzz rests on those who are just waking up.

A perfect storm. A rising global promotion. A pool of talent more diverse, eclectic and deeper than of any wrestling troupe in the world. A growing contingent of fans, becoming more passionate with every new event – and is suitably convincing more to join in on the much deserved hype. New leadership that has full intentions to make a legitimate stamp on the professional wrestling landscape through expansion into the United States. An unbelievably hyped event that had the world prepared for greatness. And one of the greatest World Championship runs in history – held by the best wrestler on the planet – challenged by his very equal, a parallel universe creation if he grew up on the other side of the Pacific. A perfect match, that ended with a brand new champion.

If you have not witnessed the near 70-minute instant classic between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega in a no-limit 2 out of 3 Falls match from NJPW’s Dominion 2018, stop reading my column and watch it now. Several, myself included laud it as one of the greatest professional matches ever seen. Some will walk away calling it “overrated” or not worth the hype. They are wrong. Overrated simply means in that person’s opinion, the match is not for them. It does not have a claim to dispute the near-unanimous praise it deserves. When it comes to the art of professional wrestling – when it comes to the very essence of what wrestling is to be – a combat of two performers in the ring taking an audience on an emotional journey where only one emerges victorious – Okada/Omega IV is a pinnacle on a mountain with a horizon view of a new dawn.

Kenny Omega’s rise to the top of the New Japan mountain was a perilous eight-year journey starting in 2010 as part of the NJPW Juniors and tagged with Kota Ibushi – who would play an important part of Omega’s evolution from upstart to champion. The Golden☆Lovers was born, a partnership I believe is one of the more underrated in wrestling lore. Omega finished fourth in his block at the 2010 Battle of the Super Juniors tournament. As time wore on, Kenny Omega would take snippets – piece by piece – of little things he could do to improve his in-ring prowess. He would become a tag champion with Kota Ibushi, he would go on a hot streak of five straight victories at the 2013 BoSJ tournament.

By the time Kenny Omega joined Bullet Club, there were whispers from a small contingent of fans who believed Omega could usher in a new future within professional wrestling. They were quickly shot down. Too small. Doesn’t “look” like a main event star. Spot Monkey. Until he arrives in WWE, Omega is not anyone special. Omega, dubbing himself “The Cleaner” underwent a full transformation. As a performer fluent in Japanese, he refused to speak in Japan’s native tongue and would do interviews in English. Omega coveted the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title and captured it, defeating Ryusuke Taguchi at WrestleKingdom 9.

WrestleKingdom 9 was the first WrestleKingdom that I was truly hyped for as it found its way at the cusp of real attention. The show was an instant hit and truly stamped NJPW as a truly credible wrestling promotion. Watching Omega at WrestleKingdom 9, I saw glimpses of a young Shawn Michaels – a performer who strived to steal the show, but tried a little too hard at times. As a Junior Heavyweight Champion, some believed Omega had reached his ceiling. A fairly decent run with the title, culminating in a great set of matches between him and KUSHIDA began to turn heads. He was finding his footing. Omega’s matches were tighter, focused on telling a compelling story and was able to work with a wide variety of opponents with different styles. He had set his eyes on a specific one, though.

Turning on AJ Styles and proclaiming himself the new leader of Bullet Club the day after WrestleKingdom 10 was his breakout moment. Omega’s declaration that he was now a heavyweight in New Japan was expected from some fans, but still a stunner within the wrestling community for those who doubted his credibility as a heavyweight. Those doubts were beginning to be put to rest as in Niigata, Japan, Omega defeated New Japan’s “Ace”, Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Title in one of the best matches of the year. Omega became a double champion with the Young Bucks as he also held the Openweight 6-Man Title at the same time. Omega’s performances became one of the constants of NJPW as one of the more reliable competitors. It was at this time – for me- the comparisons of HBK was becoming clear. If one has seen Shawn Michaels’ performance at WrestleMania 11, where he essentially put the match on his back to convince the world that he was the single most electrifying wrestler in the world – they may be able to see what Omega was trying to achieve. His wrestling ability was not only about the wrestling itself, but about how it was presented, how a story was told and how to engage the audience.

Two years ago, Omega defeated Hirooki Goto and won the G1 Climax tournament with his eyes set on the IWGP Heavyweight Title at WrestleKingdom 11. This was Omega’s moment. Omega and Okada gifted the wrestling world one of the best matches in history where Omega would come short. Dave Meltzer gave the match SIX STARS(!!!!!), and Kenny Omega became a wrestling sensation overnight with fans hopping on the bandwagon once they saw Omega’s gifts in the ring. Omega and Okada would have two more outstanding matches, ending (at the time) a trilogy of matches that is only rivaled by the Flair/Steamboat trilogy in 1989.

Fans wanted to see Omega finally reach his goal that he worked so hard for. After being crowned the inaugural NJPW United States Champion, there was genuine buzz about Omega having a legitimate chance of becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion.

He was met with impossible odds.

Kazuchika Okada was in the middle of arguably the greatest run as a World Champion in the history of the business. Defending the IWGP Heavyweight title for a record twelve times, Okada had shattered all other records as the longest reigning Heavyweight Champion in New Japan history. He was considered by nearly everyone in the industry as the very best pure professional wrestler on the planet. After a successful title defense against Bad Luck Fale at Wrestling Dontaku, Okada named Kenny Omega as the next challenger to his title at Dominion. With 1-1-1 record, Okada needed to settle things once and for all with Omega to prove who the very best was. It was very telling during an interview before the event, that the two had very different ideas on what “the best” meant:

“You may be the best wrestler on the planet and I’ll admit it, you are. You’re the best and it’s not even an opinion thing anymore, this is something that you’ve proven. But you can’t say you’re the best performer. That goes to me. And if we’re going to move this thing forward, if we’re gonna cause this revolution of professional wrestling and make this something worldwide and something cool. We can’t just have the best natural pro wrestler steering the ship. We need someone who captures the imagination. Who captures the heart. We need a performer and a showman, which is why I’m doing everything I can in my power to overtake you’re natural wrestling ability.”

There is a distinct difference between “wrestler” and “performer”. Bret Hart was a wrestler. The Rock was a performer. There are hybrids, like Shawn Michaels and Randy Savage. The art of wrestling is an evolving symphony, with new notes sprinkled in that changes its output. Long gone are the days where a disqualification of a grappling match was caused by having too much oil on the body or using the ring to demonstrate feats of strength. Wrestling has grown into a pure storytelling medium, where it is no longer about simply who is the best wrestler in the world, but an emotional roller-coaster. The competitiveness now, is gauged on who can give the best “performance” in the ring. That is what we as hardcore fans look for. This is a line of thinking Kenny Omega has embraced and is running the ball miles past the end zone.

The 2-out-of-3 falls match between Omega and Okada is a masterpiece. To me, there is no dispute about that. Okada/Omega will go down as one of the great wrestling rivalries, up there with Hogan/Piper, Flair/Steamboat, Hart/HBK and Rock/Austin. The crowning of Omega as one of the very few Gaijin IWGP Champions in history is a stamp of approval that the company trusts him to help lead New Japan into the future. And it is obvious that New Japan is thinking about something special for its long-term growth.

I believe it is no coincidence that the champions that emerged from Dominion: Omega as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Chris Jericho as IWGP Intercontinental Champion, The Young Bucks as Tag Team Champions and Michael Elgin as NEVER Openweight Champion feels to be a very calculated move on the part of New Japan as they steamroll their North American expansion. New Japan has stars to mainstream and hardcore audiences that Western fans can relate to, while Japan has performers they trust and believe are credible. I don’t expect some of these championship runs to last long, but as New Japan makes strides to grow into a fully functioning global promotion, it smartly realized that it needed to build bridges towards the English-speaking audience.

Outside of all this, though – is Kenny Omega. A man from Winnipeg who had dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and took the hard road of traveling town to town and even learned an entire language just for the opportunity to hone his craft. Omega was a kid who a lot of fans underestimated and judged as someone who was all flash and no substance. Some will scoff at the high praise that Omega has been receiving, but at the end of the day, those voices will fade away as the history books proclaim the facts: the best wrestling promotion in the world just crowned Kenny Omega as their World Champion – there must be something they see in him for that honor.

I fucking love professional wrestling. Loved it since 1982. It has brought me to tears, provided me with catharsis, gave me shelter and a means to escape the ills of the world and the pain I inflicted on myself. It also angered me to the point of nearly walking away, offended me and made me question my fandom. As I have grown older, I have embraced my love of wrestling fully, unashamed to my “fancy” friends who like to smoke cigars at book clubs and discuss politics (yuck). After red eyes and upsetting the wife for not being in bed in the morning, I texted my friend – who just got into wrestling as a fan around three years ago and let him know that I just watched one of the best pay per views I have ever had the pleasure to experience. I wanted to shout and spoil the results, but it is always better to experience events within the moment, as a fan, separated from the nagging negativity of internet opinions and trolls and embrace the inner mark we all have. Kenny Omega has been one of the flames that has kept my fandom burning, and for that I thank him and congratulate him on his coronation as IWGP Heavyweight Champion.

Even though his name means “the end”, it is clear that we are witnessing the beginning of a new, exciting future for wrestling. I plan to sit and watch the horizon as the sun rises for all of us.

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