SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
News of the Week: Kenny Omega out to prove he is the best in the world
Kenny Omega is ready to unveil a new way of presenting pro wrestling in his Wrestle Kingdom 12 match with Chris Jericho on Jan. 4 at the Tokyo Dome.
“I really want this match to be a wake-up call to New Japan and WWE,” said Omega. “This match is going to open up a lot of eyes, and it’s going to invoke a feeling you’ve never felt when watching a wrestling match. It’s a clash of unique worlds, and the match we’re going to show with aggression, violence, and disdain is going to evoke a new kind of emotion from people watching.”
Omega’s vision dates back to 2016 when he and the Young Bucks were engaging The New Day on social media, openly challenging the WWE trio to a dream match.
“We knew there was a small chance of that ever happening, but what we wanted to do was engage the fans with something that could be really fun,” said Omega. “We wanted to show the idea of us working together and having this social media feud was fun for everyone, even if it was just a dream match. Now we almost have just that: a super-special guest from WWE in Chris Jericho, a disciple of Vince McMahon, coming into New Japan Pro Wrestling after saying he’d never work for anyone else but Vince.
“It’s ascended to a new height. It’s no longer, ‘What would happen if Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega fought?’ At Wrestle Kingdom 12, this match will actually happen. There will be a pay-off, and the success of this match could lead to more cross-over for the sake of good business.”
Omega has worked for New Japan since he signed in Oct. 2014, and he explained that the company remains the perfect place for him to call home.
“As an artist, I really feel I need an outlet to exhibit all of my skills,” said Omega. “I still feel there is more to this Kenny Omega character and there are more stories I need to tell, and New Japan allows me that freedom. That is a freedom I earned through the hard work I put into the company. Now, I have the luxury of time to tell my stories, as well as the chance to work with the best guys on the roster, who I believe are also the best in the world.”
The 34-year-old Omega is constantly dealing with a barrage of questions asking whether he will ever leave New Japan Pro Wrestling for the WWE. The answer is apparent only when delving deep into Omega’s original love affair with New Japan, which began while he was wrestling for Japanese wrestling promotion DDT.
“It’s no secret that I love the country and Japan has always felt like a second home to me,” said the Canadian-born Omega. “As time went by and my accomplishments in DDT were piling up over a six-year period, and I accomplished everything I wanted to do, I had to make some choices. It was either re-challenge myself with what the U.S. had to offer, or step up to the major leagues in Japan, which is New Japan. I loved DDT for the freedom; I was able to tell the wackiest and wildest of stories, but also test myself as an athlete.
“DDT is where I met one of the guys that I believe is the best in the world, and that’s Kota Ibushi. Together, we showed something different. Through our passion for wrestling, and what wrestling can be, we gave a Japanese alternative to New Japan. Once I felt like I had done everything I could in DDT–won every title I could, developed new talent that could carry the company–all that was left was New Japan. I asked myself, ‘Could I have that same success? Would I still be able to excel in an environment with the restrictions and limitations of a bigger promotion?’
“From 2015 onward, it’s been a steady growth period with New Japan. Even though it never started the way I thought it would, I was happy that I started pretty much at the bottom and worked my way up to where I am now, which has allowed for a re-introduction of who I am to a very unique New Japan fan base, a large portion of which only watches New Japan Pro Wrestling. Now I’ve done a lot in New Japan, as well, but I still feel the work isn’t done.”
Omega’s odyssey in New Japan was never designed to conquer the company. At first, he was simply content with wrestling for the company. Over time, however, his goals and aspirations evolved.
“When I started in New Japan, I had humble dreams, and now I want to make the company a true force to be reckoned with,” said Omega. “I’m not saying I want to directly compete head-to-head with WWE, but I want it to be an option available for everyone to watch. I really do think it boasts the best professional wrestling on the planet, and I selfishly want to be the person leading the ship. I truly believe in my ability and the style I’ve created is something that wrestling fans–and people who haven’t even watched me yet–will take a liking to.”
Omega’s failure to win the IWGP heavyweight championship still eats away at him.
“I can’t lie, winning that belt was a goal of mine,” admitted Omega. “When I crossed over to the heavyweight division, I immediately set my sights on the Intercontinental title. I knew that was going to take some time away from pursuing the IWGP heavy, but generally speaking, the Intercontinental title had this reputation behind it as the workman’s belt with the matches that would steal the show. I wanted to continue with that legacy, and I also wanted to enter my own name in history and do some original things with the belt, for example with the company’s first-ever ladder match. For me, introducing that was a huge accomplishment, as well as executing the match in a way that the fans would want to see another one.”
After Omega dropped the IC title, he competed in his first-ever G1 Climax tournament, and created headlines by becoming the first North American to capture the grueling round-robin tournament.
“I thought the next stage was going to be the IWGP heavyweight title,” said Omega. “I had thought that, in January of this year, I would be entrusted with that title. Or that we’d pull the trigger in a rematch.”
Yet Omega never claimed the heavyweight title in 2017. He instead won a tournament for the newly-minted IWGP United States championship, which he will defend against Jericho in a no-DQ match at Wrestle Kingdom.
“You can easily confuse not being the champion with your company not believing or trusting in you,” said Omega. “There is a right time and place for everything, and the New Japan office always has a plan well, well in advance. They really want to make the belt mean something, and now Okada has been the champion for a record number of days. That ups the prestige, and whoever takes the title from Okada is probably looking at a long reign. I’ve got the U.S. title now, and I am going to make that as legitimate a title as Nakamura made the IC title. Chris Jericho is doing nothing but helping that, which feeds into my primary goal of making New Japan a more worldwide-recognized promotion.”
There are always comparisons of Wrestle Kingdom to WrestleMania. Omega understands the parallels, but has a hard time fathoming that wrestling fans could compare one of WWE’s main events at WrestleMania with what will be on display at Wrestle Kingdom with the double main event featuring Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito as well as the match between Omega and Jericho.
“I don’t feel that WWE has anyone on the main event level that can compete with us,” said Omega. “Both of our shows are for the spectacle, but our main events are going to be treated differently than what WWE puts on for WrestleMania. If we’re going to go match quality to match quality, then I can see our two main events really providing the full spectrum of what two storyline-driven main events can be with next-level athletics.”
Omega can back up every one of his boasts in the ring, and he is also aware of the product that WWE is presenting on a weekly basis.
“Strangely enough, lately I’ve been keeping up with all of their programming,” said Omega. “I don’t watch full episodes back-to-back, but I’ll catch the highlights. If people are saying a lot of good things about a match, I’ll make sure to sit down and watch it from start to finish.”
Shinsuke Nakamura is a former New Japan star that left for WWE, but has yet to win a title or even deliver a memorable moment beyond one staredown with AJ Styles during the Money in the Bank pay per view in June. Omega shared that he has followed Nakamura’s journey in WWE.
“I’m happy for the response that he’s getting, of course, and all of us in New Japan knew when he left that he was going to get over with his charisma,” said Omega. “But when I see Nakamura in WWE, it’s hard for me to say he’s done anything compelling in-ring since he’s been there, which is a shame. It will just take the one right story and the one right moment and then people will be captivated by everything that he does. Right now, he hasn’t had that.”
The low point for Nakamura in WWE occurred before the Survivor Series, when the rosters from Raw and SmackDown were battling it out in the ring, and Nakamura was tossed out of the ring by Braun Strowman. Moments later, Shane McMahon delivered more offense on Strowman than Nakamura, which was a peculiar message to send to those watching.
“Even to another degree, everything in WWE is super over-booked,” explained Omega. “Some people in WWE even need the steps and their footing in the ring choreographed. They have to pace their breathing before they even go through with a match in the ring. When you’re used to dealing with people who need that match management, who need to have that much choreography in their matches before they go out there and perform, then when a guy like Nakamura–who is this new age ‘strong style,’ and a lot of that is based off emotion and feeling and fighting spirit–wrestles someone who needs marks on the ring so that he can get his footing right with a set of instructions, that’s where Nakamura’s style gets lost in translation. Everything starts to come across as soulless, if that makes any sense.”
Omega’s vision of what wrestling can be will come to life at the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
“We’re both out there to make this statement,” said Omega. “We both have a heavy belief that the way we envision pro wrestling is the right way. Now you’ll see these two opposite sides: the inspired artist vs. Vince McMahon’s giant megastar. How are their ideas of the business going to clash in this match? This is a different atmosphere, there is a special nature to this match, and it’s going to be an organic meshing of worlds.”
Brad Shepard’s tweet that reported Vince McMahon is considering bringing back the XFL has created considerable buzz in the sports world, and McMahon fueled even more discussion last week by selling 3.34 million shares of WWE stock to help fund his privately owned Alpha Entertainment.
ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell also noted that Alpha Entertainment filed five trademarks just last week for the “XFL”.
Given the information, Rovell encouraged readers to draw their own conclusions.
So we will.
There will never be another XFL. In fact, it is unlikely that McMahon will ever oversee a pro football league. He failed miserably at his first attempt, but he is using the XFL as leverage for his upcoming WWE television contract.
As previously reported, McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment is self-funded. McMahon knows that the UFC sold for $4 billion in 2016, and more importantly, he knows why the fight conglomerate sold at such an exorbitant price: anticipated profits off its television rights.
WWE will soon be negotiating offers for its own television rights in 2019, and the leak of the XFL potentially resurfacing–especially in a climate where the NFL has lost some of its popularity–is a leverage play from McMahon.
There is nothing to know about Alpha Entertainment beyond the fact that it is run by McMahon. Despite all the critics who bemoan McMahon’s booking or short-term storylines (which are critiqued later in the column), he transformed a profitable northeast wrestling promotion into a worldwide conglomerate worth an estimated two billion dollars.
Therefore, it only makes sense that McMahon is leveraging the XFL, plus any and all other Alpha Entertainment projects, into his next round of negotiations for his television rights in 2019. Whoever acquires the WWE television rights would then, presumably, receive the first right of refusal for any other McMahon-created project, which would include a potential return of the XFL.
In other news…
• As we exit 2017, it is interesting to look back at the WWE champions entering the year this past January:
AJ Styles was WWE champion; Kevin Owens was Universal champion; The Miz entered the year as Intercontinental champ; Roman Reigns was United States champion; Charlotte Flair was Raw Women’s champ; Alexa Bliss was SmackDown Women’s champ; Sheamus and Cesaro were WWE Raw tag team champions; American Alpha wore the SmackDown tag titles; and Rich Swann was the Cruiserweight champion.
Certain names on the list stand out, most notably AJ Styles starting and ending the year as WWE champion, but also Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair swapping roles on Raw and SmackDown. Roman Reigns has traded the US title for the IC belt, while Rich Swann is unlikely to ever see himself in another high-profile role with the WWE after his arrest earlier this month for allegedly battering his wife. Still, arguably the biggest surprise is that Cesaro and Sheamus are still going strong as a tag team.
Although the unlikely duo of Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan won the titles on Raw, Cesaro has proven himself to be a modern-day tag team specialist. Starting at the Royal Rumble, 2018 is the right time to break up the team, have another best-of-seven series, and finally build Cesaro to a significant singles push.
• A wrinkle in plans for a Cesaro singles push is Sheamus’ health.
Sheamus has been dealing with spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck, and was actually mentioned by Sheamus in his own Youtube video.
WWE also reported that Dean Ambrose will be out upwards of nine months due to a high-grade triceps tendon injury. The best-case scenario is that Ambrose returns healthy and makes an immediate impact with an audience excited to see him. Most of WWE’s talent, minus Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker, are overused and overexposed. Great matches from AJ Styles seem commonplace because we witness them too often (if you look back in time, Vince McMahon’s greatest booking was with Hulk Hogan, who was rarely ever overused in his WWE runs). Jim Cornette is correct when he says, “How can we miss you if you never go away?” If Ambrose returns with a revitalized character and is moved right into the world title picture, he can turn his absence into a positive.
Yet Sheamus is dealing with an entirely different type of situation. Spinal stenosis is an injury that only worsens over time. The 39-year-old Sheamus, who has had a 15-year career in the ring, will need to work smart and protect himself. Remaining in a tag team with Cesaro–where the Swiss Superman can absorb the brunt of the punishment from opponents–is best for Sheamus’ long-term health and success.
• Braun Strowman is one of the most legitimate monsters active in professional wrestling. So your guess is as good as mine as to why WWE would ever consider dressing up Strowman as Elf in an online video.
The same Strowman who powerslammed Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas into oblivion on Raw also filmed a short comedy film as WWE’s version of Elf. WWE’s YouTube page has had nearly one million hits for the video.
So yes, the video hit a wide-audience and was generally well-received. And no, I am not part of the target audience as a 34-year-old. Yet my issue is that a video that portrays Strowman as Elf hurts the legitimacy of the product.
Conor McGregor will not be donning an elf suit any time soon in a UFC video, nor will Brock Lesnar do so for WWE, which is absolutely correct. It is a fundamentally flawed philosophy to present stars that exhibit a naturally tough aura as anything but dangerous.
• There are always gaps in logic in WWE storytelling, but there are currently major holes in the storyline.
The finish of the Survivor Series main event ranks high atop that list.
Why haven’t Triple H’s actions been discussed on WWE programming? Triple H turned on Raw General Manager Kurt Angle, and explaining that story should be a high priority on the following week’s television. Triple H also tried to turn on Braun Strowman and was treated to a powerslam for his deception, yet that is another piece of storytelling that has not been explained by the WWE broadcast team. How is that possible?
Also, is John Cena still a free agent? If so, how, exactly, is this possible? He returned to Raw on Monday and defeated Elias Sampson in the opening match of the night. Why not just tell us he has a clause in his contract?
Don’t the fans, who invest an exorbitant amount of time in the product, including viewing on holidays, deserve constant explanation?
• Silas Young is the new Ring of Honor World Television champion. He is looking forward to defending the title against any and all opponents, including a rematch with former champ Kenny King. But Young has already overcome his biggest obstacle, which was his own battle against addiction.
A recovering drug addict who struggled with heroin abuse, Young is filled with a fighting spirit. His fight has allowed him to persevere and thrive in Ring of Honor.
“There are certain situations in life that are character-building, and I feel like that was one of those moments in my life,” said Young. “Sometimes, the battles with yourself are the hardest battles, and that goes for a lot of people. Our own worst enemies are often ourselves, so it takes a lot of mental checking-in-with-yourself–almost giving yourself a daily mental pep talk–because our biggest opponent is our self.”
Young captured the title in a four-way elimination match at ROH’s Final Battle pay per view on December 15, dethroning Kenny King in a match that included 300-plus heavyweight Shane Taylor and 6-foot-7 Punishment Martinez.
Wrestling’s self-proclaimed “Last Real Man” celebrated the win when he returned home with his family.
“My son, who just turned nine years old, was running around the house with the belt,” said Young. “Then my wife and I celebrated over breakfast.”
Young is an anomaly in pro wrestling. Unlike so many other heels, in a culture and climate where anti-establishment is in vogue, Young is proud to be an antagonist who you genuinely dislike.
“I’m a throwback to when men used to be men,” said Young. “Unlike Kenny King, Silas Young is definitely not someone you would see on The Bachelorette.”
Young took a significant step toward the TV title after defeating Jay Lethal in a “Last Man Standing” match at September’s Death Before Dishonor pay per view.
“Jay Lethal is the face of the company, and he’s a guy who is very well-respected in the wrestling industry,” said Young. “To be able to have a program and ‘Last Man Standing’ match with him, and to walk away as the winner, that was a huge step for me and my career. It lit a fire under me, and helped propel me along toward the World Television title.”
The 38-year-old Young is a native of Wisconsin, and he plans on giving the TV title a distinct flavor, beginning with an upcoming television defense against Simon Grimm, who wrestled as Simon Gotch in The Vaudevillains in WWE.
“I want to take this title and run with it,” said Young. “It’s a hard task to accomplish, but I want to raise the Ring of Honor World Television title and elevate it higher than it’s ever been. I also want to live up to it; what the title means, the standards former champions have set, and surpass it. I’m up for the challenge.”
After two very short stints in WWE, Young has worked for ROH since 2012. He plans on continuing to exceed expectations in 2018.
“If it was up to me, I would be defending that title on every TV taping,” said Young. “With an hour of TV time every week, that may not happen, but Ring of Honor believes in their talent. I appreciate all the opportunities wrestling has given me, and I am going to push myself to have better matches against better talent. I would love to go back to Japan in 2018 and defend the TV on a world scene.
“Everyone is on the hit list. There is no one who is safe. Guys like Tanahashi? Okada? I would love to have the opportunity to be in the ring with them, and beat them. That will keep raising my stock and prove that I am everything I say I am.
• “The Product” David Starr is preparing for a “Fans Bring the Weapons” match in Worcester against Joey Janela for Beyond Wrestling that is set to start right after the clock strikes midnight and 2018 begins.
“Eddie Edwards and Biff Busick put Beyond Wrestling on the map, and Donovan Dijak came out of Beyond Wrestling,” said Starr. “Now I’m fighting to be the face of Beyond Wrestling.”
The 26-year-old Starr grew up in Philadelphia as a fan of the Rocky films and particularly the outspoken Apollo Creed. Starr, whose real name is Max Barsky, has enjoyed infusing some of his own personality into the Starr persona.
“I do all these nicknames in my intro, and that is from Apollo Creed,” said Starr. “Steve Corino was very helpful in my career, and he did that with the intro, as well. There is a line of realism you need to walk in pro wrestling, and I was an amateur wrestler wrestling against all these other athletes with personalities that people could attach to. So that’s what I’m doing here, and my favorite of all-time is ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, who was extremely influential at implementing a character into an act.”
“Point blank, Janela and I have killed each other before in a match and we’re going to do it again. We’re fighting for a purpose: Joey is fighting for the same respect I’m fighting for. I’m always fighting to be recognized as the very best, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get that recognition. Janela and I are going to put ourselves through hell and within an inch of our lives, and we’re going to start off 2018 with the match of the year.
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson return this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, examining the Vengeance pay per view from 2001, which was the WWE coronation of Chris Jericho.
“It’s the tail end of ‘The Invasion,’ and the WCW world heavyweight title was combined with the WWF world title, and we saw someone ‘made’ in the process,” said Thompson. “I think we all thought it would be The Rock or Steve Austin as undisputed champ by the end of the night, but it was Chris Jericho who ended up beating both guys.”
Jericho’s victory at Vengeance kick-started his campaign to headline a WrestleMania, which he eventually did in a match against Triple H three months later at WrestleMania 18.
“Jericho is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime performer, but people questioned this decision back in ‘01,” said Thompson. “This will be an examination of Jericho’s first opportunity to have the rocket strapped to his ass.”
The entire Vengeance card was overflowing with talent, featuring Jeff Hardy vs. Matt Hardy with Lita as the special guest referee, the Dudleys vs. Kane and the Big Show, and Rob Van Dam vs. The Undertaker.
“Vengeance serves as a reminder of just how loaded this roster was in 2001,” said Thompson. “From 2000-2003, you could argue that Vince McMahon had the most talented roster in the history of the business.
“It’s interesting, because when Vince was nipping at the heels of WCW, I don’t know that he would have looked to a Chris Jericho to be his torchbearer. Now, with no competition, there was a pressure to build the next generation of stars, and Jericho is the guy who gets the nod. This feels like the first time Vince really took a chance post buy-out, and I’m interested in learning more about the climate of the company and the expectations from Vince.”
Thompson, who also offers an in-depth look at Starrcade ‘97 this Thursday with Tony Schiavone on his “What Happened When” podcast, noted he is thrilled to have the chance to explore Jericho’s WWE run in long-form.
“Though this isn’t technically the ‘Chris Jericho show’, it’s going to feel like it,” said Thompson. “But then Triple H wins the Royal Rumble, and you had the feeling that Jericho was not going over in that match against Triple H at WrestleMania. I can’t wait to hear Bruce dance around that.”
• Coming attractions: Sports Illustrated will reveal its Top 10 wrestlers and Wrestler of the Year this Friday on SI.com.
Tweet of the Week
Who knew Jimmy Uso was the Cal Ripken Jr. of WWE?