- New Japan's Kenny Omega discusses his decision to stay with New Japan instead of pursuing a career in WWE, the skills that separate and elevate him above the alleged elite in wrestling, and his historic battle for the IWGP championship Wednesday at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
Kenny Omega is ready to make history, but not in a WWE ring. He has reached heights previously unseen by foreign wrestlers in Japan, and that is a source of pride for him.
“Since I’m not in WWE, some people think I’m not even in their league,” said Omega, who is the first non-Asian to main event New Japan’s yearly January 4 Tokyo Dome showcase since Brock Lesnar in 2006. “It’s easy for me to tune those people out because they have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Omega is set to battle IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada this Wednesday at Wrestle Kingdom 11, which is New Japan’s biggest show of the year and will be broadcast live from the Tokyo Dome on New Japan World. The 33-year-old, who is Sports Illustrated's Wrestler of the Year, has promised to re-establish the gold standard of the business in his match with Okada.
“I’m happy that I dislike wrestling and where wrestling is at right now,” said Omega. “I am happy that, when I watch something on TV that isn’t me, I hate it. That makes me try all the more hard to show people what wrestling can be. That’s not to say everything is bad, but a lot of wrestlers in a position on television—or guys thrust into a main spot—shouldn’t be. I take a lot of pride in what I do. There is a place for everyone, but if you are in a main position with a main company, you have to make those sacrifices to show people you are the man.”
The Winnipeg-bred Omega has devoted his adult life to the business of professional wrestling, and backs up his words with actions. He also has a long memory. Omega spent time—a period, he admits, where he was very unhappy—in 2005 and 2006 as a WWE developmental prospect in Deep South Wrestling, and his fire still burns to be significantly better than any product the WWE produces.
“I’m eating, breathing, and s----ing wrestling right now,” said Omega. “When I’m waking up in bed in the morning and my bones and my joints are aching—and I know that I’m not ‘old’ old, but I know there is a lot of younger talent floating around their roster—I’m wondering, ‘Why in the hell are these guys not rising up? Why are they not doing what it takes to be better? Are they so happy to be a cog in the WWE machine that they’re just happy to be where they are? Are they just satisfied to see WWE as the name on their paycheck every week? Why can I keep getting better and pushing the envelope to have these ‘Matches of the Year,’ but no one else can even come close?’ AJ Styles has been great, but he’s been great forever. Why is there no one else?”
Though Omega’s matches have been sublime, his spot in the Wrestle Kingdom is noteworthy for a multitude of reasons, most significantly due to his rise from junior heavyweight in 2015 to heavyweight in 2016.
“Sometimes I feel like there is no hope,” continued Omega. “There are guys that will get good real quick, and then they’ll stay that way—they’re happy to have a job and they’re scared to lose that job on top of it. Everyone is afraid to stand out, everyone is afraid to make history. They just want to be a normal motherf----- in wrestling, being a wrestler, collecting a paycheck, then telling their friends, ‘I’m a ‘WWE Superstar.’ For me, that’s the worst s--- ever.
“I would rather be the legend that never stepped foot in WWE but was better than every single one of them and did something that none of those guys could do in their prime or could ever do if they left WWE and tried. No one is going to win ten ‘matches of the year’ in Japan, no one could. I’ve already won ten. No one could go from WWE and win one – if you did, you’d have to have a better match than me, and that isn’t going to happen. That’s the kind of pride I bring to my work. AJ is the closest guy who could do it, but I’m talking about their roster as a whole. It’s just not going to happen. That’s not just me saying that because I’m a cocky prick. That’s me saying it as a challenge because I’m pushing the barrier every single day. I’ll take all my matches against WWE’s best matches, I’ll put it up against Ring of Honor’s best matches, or whatever promotion you want, and I guarantee people will be more entertained with my matches than theirs. That is the attitude I need to carry with me. If I lose my confidence, then I’ll lose my way. And yes, I’m saying controversial things, but I’m not purposely saying them just to be controversial. I’m just one of the only guys to be speaking my true feelings.”
Omega has the résumé to back up his talk, too, given the dichotomy in Japanese wrestling between the heavyweight and junior heavyweight divisions. It is a distinction that few wrestlers—if any—ever break. For Omega to elevate himself in New Japan from junior to heavyweight is a significant accomplishment, but he also executed the transition in a credible fashion. Omega did not change his style drastically, yet instead added a more dynamic presence.
“Going into 2016, I was junior champion,” revealed Omega, who won the junior heavyweight title at Wrestle Kingdom 9 and then lost the championship a year ago this January to Kushida. “I really figured that my future within the company was in that division. I thought the most I could ever ask for or hope for was to be the best junior heavyweight on the planet. New Japan takes talent from all over the world in that division, so my New Year’s resolution was to be the best champion.”
Omega’s path, as well as the future of New Japan, forever changed when AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson suddenly announced on the eve of Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January 2015 that they were leaving for WWE. New Japan was in dire need of a new antagonist in its heavyweight division, and Omega was cast to lead the Bullet Club in Styles’ departure.
“My career changed instantaneously with the announcement of Shinsuke, AJ, Gallows, and Machine Gun leaving in the blink of an eye,” said Omega. “I went from being a junior—and probably set to be Kushida’s arch-nemesis until the cows came home—to suddenly being vaulted into the heavyweight title picture for the Intercontinental championship.
“That taught me a lesson: I couldn’t put a limit on myself. The things I wanted were finally coming true. I was finally going to get a shot against these heavyweights, the guys that had all the hype. I had to listen while people said all these different guys were the best, but I knew, if I was ever given the chance, I would be able to show everyone something new. Then I was finally in the position to do it, so I wasn’t going to just be complacent. Some guys do that—they look at this as a job, but I knew I could show something really cool that people hadn’t seen before.”
Omega’s bellicosity is also apparent in more than just his stance against the WWE product. He is also willing to call out the New Japan roster, which brings along animosity from his peers. Yet, Omega backed up his boisterous claims by becoming the first non-Asian to win the G-1 Climax this past August, which saw him wrestle ten matches in a tournament that challenges a wrestler’s psyche and physical well-being.
“Guys are prideful of their position,” admitted Omega. “But if you’re so prideful of your position, then outwork me. There are other things I wish I could do with my time, like take a day or a week off from training. Games are my beloved hobby, and I wish I could play all these games that are sitting around and collecting dust, but instead I’m training every day, building a better body, becoming a better athlete.
“I’m thinking about what I’m going to do the next time the cameras are on to show that my style and my vision of wrestling is the best. I’m coming up with ideas for angles, for storylines, videos to do with the Young Bucks. These guys that are already in the spotlight, these guys who are considered ‘main talent,’ whether it be WWE, Ring of Honor, or New Japan. They’re just accepting that they’re the man and they’re just going about their job. ‘Tell me what the writers tell me to do or what the booker wants me to do, and I’ll go out and do it’—they don’t think beyond that, for the most part, and that’s what separates guys like them from guys like me and the Young Bucks. We are really trying to move the business in a direction that is more easily accessible for the normal person.”
Omega and the Young Bucks—Matt and Nick Jackson, who are both Ring of Honor and IWGP junior heavyweight tag team champions—are the most influential members of the Bullet Club, as well as form a Bullet Club sub-group called “The Elite.”
“I know that what I do isn’t the most compelling for a guy who wants to see the gritty, hold-for-hold, traditional style of pro wrestling,” said Omega. “And that is fine, because I’m not wrestling for those people at all. I want the people who like to watch Ant-Man or Deadpool or any kind of TV drama, to turn on New Japan and say, ‘Wait a minute, what this guy is doing is really good.’ And they might not flip the channel away from that. And when I speak on the microphone, I want people to take something away from what I’m saying and realize this is not some s----y, overly-scripted hackneyed WWE promo. That’s my outlook on wrestling as a sport and source of entertainment, which is different than a lot of other people who will just do what they’re told like a good little programmed robot.
“I’m always trying to evolve this business into a spot where it wasn’t intended to go. That’s why I was able to go from the guy that New Japan scrambled to make the leader of the Bullet Club to a guy that was having ladder matches and a guy that was winning the G-1 and winning three ‘Match of the Year’ awards. They never expected that and they never even wanted that, but they had to roll with the punches because I was killing it. I’m proud of the effort I put in, burning the candles on both ends to do it, but I don’t want fans to waste their time. They shouldn’t feel like wrestling is a joke or that they have x-amount of better things to do with their time when I’m on television.”
Omega entertains when he is in the ring, but adds the distinction that he is not merely an entertainer. His goal is to defeat Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 and defend the IWGP championship around the world like no prior champion.
“We have a ton of sponsors in New Japan, and they want to see us moving forward,” explained Omega. “It’s easy to say, ‘OK, we’re just going to take a young good looking stud, we’re going to dress him up real nice and pretty, and he’s going to do a bunch of photo shoots for you once a week.’ Sure, people in Tokyo and Osaka, even people in Japan as a whole, might know who this guy is, but our New Japan World subscription service and our subscribers aren’t going to go up. It’s going to stay the same. We need to look outside the box if we’re going to move forward as a company. If the company doesn’t want to move forward, then it doesn’t want to move forward and it’s happy where it is. If we challenge ourselves and if we have some people who are motivated to step outside of their comfort zone and travel a little bit, and do some things they never saw themselves doing before, New Japan can become more of a household name on a global level. We have a guy like Bad Luck Fale from New Zealand—his homeboys know who he is, but they don’t know what New Japan is aside from that.”
Omega believes that New Japan’s focus on succeeding solely in Japan is a narrow lens, but assures that philosophy will change if he is successful in winning the company’s most prized championship.
“My vision for the company is different from what we’re seeing right now,” said Omega. “We are using a ton of foreign talent, and it would be easy for us to cross over and extend our borders. We have talent that is looking to stay loyal and see this company grow, and I’m not just sitting on the sideline waiting to see the highest bidder. I’m committed to seeing this company grow, as well. I can be multi-cultural, multi-lingual, work a physical style, push forward entertaining storylines, and be the more worldly entertainment that the company needs. I’m also willing to accept the blame if it fails. I’m not afraid to fail, and I have no fear because I believe we can do it.”
As for the million-dollar question of whether the Young Bucks will be ringside for Omega’s showdown with Okada, the answer remains an uncertainty.
“Much like the G-1, there is an expectation where people will get the ‘Happy-go-lucky, I don’t really give a s--- Kenny Omega,’” said Omega. “I wanted to prove to people, which you critics didn’t think I could, that I can do more, and I can also appease the worldwide fan and have a couple MOTY’s on top of that, too.
“When it comes to the Tokyo Dome, there is history and tradition when it comes to the main event. I’m not saying that I want to break tradition completely, but the Tokyo Dome is a historic place and it should be treated like a man-to-man, one-versus-one main event, an epic clash between two titans. If the Young Bucks are there, they will be there as my two support beacons. They have been supporting me through the thick and thin. It’s been a rough year physically and mentally, so to have a support unit where we all have each other’s backs really helps you keep fighting the good fight. If the Young Bucks are there, it will be because they mean so much to me as people, but I do intend to fight Okada man-to-man.”
As for the showdown at Wrestle Kingdom, Omega vows to bury Okada, not praise him.
“This is Japan’s best versus the World’s best at the Tokyo Dome,” proclaimed Omega. “Once I’m raising the belt, I want the Young Bucks to be the first guys in the ring celebrating with me.”