New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to AXS TV this Sunday for a live special that will see international superstar Kenny Omega continue to carry the New Japan banner into the United States.
“Everyone watching is in for a show,” said Omega. “That I can promise.”
The show, “Strong Style Evolved,” kicks off locally at Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, California at 5 p.m. PT. WWE Hall of Famer and esteemed voice of wrestling Jim Ross will handle the play-by-play alongside former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett.
Omega teams with longtime rival and friend Kota Ibushi – collectively, they are known as the Golden Lovers – against the Young Bucks in Sunday’s signature bout. Although Omega and the Bucks’ Matt and Nick Jackson are all part of the Bullet Club, and the trio even formed their own independent alliance as “The Elite,” the group has splintered since the arrival of Cody Rhodes.
“This match seems less of a Bullet Club issue and more of a Cody brainwashing the Young Bucks situation,” said Omega. “If I had my way, I’d never fight my friends, but I can’t deny that this is one of the very few dream matches I have left and it is a chance to truly test the potential of the Golden Lovers. There’s no way to change the things that have happened and so there’s no choice now but to fight.”
Consumers who angst for detailed storyline and a potpourri of mind games will devour this encounter. Despite the fact that Rhodes is not even in the match, his presence alone will factor into the affair. He has attempted to replace Omega as the sole Bullet Club leader, and even tried to fracture the close-knit friendship between Omega and Ibushi. Rhodes actually kissed Ibushi in a New Japan ring, while his wife, Brandi Rhodes, planted one on Omega during the recent Ring of Honor pay per view in Las Vegas.
“I really don’t know what Cody is thinking,” said Ibushi, speaking through a translator. “Cody hit me with a chair, and he’s also kissed me. So I don’t have an idea how Cody is going to react or what he is thinking.”
The history between Omega and Ibushi plays an integral part into the match.
The two met a decade ago in the Japanese DDT promotion. While remaining competitive rivals, they also developed a friendship and teamed together as the Golden Lovers.
“Ibushi has been there since the beginning of my career in Japan and we very quickly established a friendship with one another,” explained Omega. “For 10 years he was a friend, a rival, a partner, and yet always a distant figure I was struggling to catch.”
The 34-year-old Omega has also been chasing the 35-year-old Ibushi.
Ibushi left New Japan to compete in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament in 2016 and, while he was in the US, Omega rose from junior heavyweight to heavyweight and even challenged IWGP heavyweight champ Kazuchika Okada to a series of unforgettable matches. True to form, Ibushi even mentioned that he was not overly impressed with the famed trilogy of matches Omega put together with Okada.
“To be honest, I already had better matches against Kenny six years ago,” said Ibushi. “Those matches were better than all the Okada-Kenny matches.”
Omega admitted that Ibushi has always inspired him to push past perceived limitations in the ring.
“It’s a challenge to match his athleticism and to sync with his speed,” said Omega. “But much like a world class couple in ballroom dancing or figure skating, we almost have an empathic read on our bodies and can move in harmony. I may have already peaked as a singles wrestler, but Ibushi is more than capable of taking over as the ‘Best Bout Machine’. I’d possibly even say he’s the only one in the world capable. This time, I don’t mind taking a back seat.
“I can’t help but feel that the Golden Lovers being back together is kind of destiny.”
As for the rest of the “Strong Style Evolved” card, a highly anticipated encounter was scheduled between Rey Mysterio and Jushin Thunder Liger. But New Japan officials just announced this week that Mysterio’s recent bicep injury will prevent the legendary luchador from appearing. Will Ospreay, who is the current IWGP junior heavyweight champion and one of the brightest young stars in wrestling at only 25, will take Mysterio’s place against the 53-year-old Liger.
The card also includes Jay White defending his IWGP United States championship against Bullet Club’s Adam “Hangman” Page, as well as Okada teaming with the “Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii against IWGP Intercontinental champ Minoru Suzuki and newly-minted New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr.
Chris Jericho, who was last seen in New Japan this past January trading blows with Tetsuya Naito, has stated that he is finished with the company.
Yet Jericho prides himself on delivering genuine surprises to wrestling fans, so the possibility remains he will appear on AXS TV this Sunday. Jericho’s band, Fozzy, is currently on its “Judas Rising” tour, but the next stop scheduled is not until Tuesday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving Sunday night open.
An additional compelling aspect to the main event between the Golden Lovers and Young Bucks is the real-life battle by the Bucks to be viewed by New Japan officials as a heavyweight tag team instead of labeled as merely junior heavyweights.
“I don’t want to say it is a relic of a rule, but it’s not as timely as it was in previous generations,” said Jim Ross, who noted that this match is appointment-viewing for wrestling fans. “When I first started, yes, weight classes were a big deal. But, over the years, it’s become less and less relevant.”
From Ross’ vantage point, he is far more interested in entertaining matches than arguing over a weight class.
“Their weight class doesn’t matter to me,” added Ross. “But what does matter is the fact that the Bucks are so damn good.
“They’ve worked on perfecting the little things. When Matt Jackson hurt his back, it became a storyline that his injured back was problematic. As the weeks progressed, his back never got a chance to fully heal so whoever was fighting him knew the back was tender and susceptible to punishment. Something as simplistic as Matt Jackson selling his back allows a storyteller like me to have a new major element in the match. I can make you believe his back is hurt and that it’s going to adversely affect his game, that it will make him go home with the loser’s share. I’ll tell you, the Bucks delivered some of the best tag team matches I’ve seen in a long time.”
The jump to heavyweight greatly impacts the Bucks. The move allows them to face new opponents, chase new titles, and even work a potentially more captivating style against monstrous tag teams.
“For a long time, Nick and I thought they should merge the divisions into one,” said Matt Jackson, who is the elder Buck by five years at 33 years old. “I know that’s what I would do if I were in charge, but I don’t make the rules. We know we can compete in any division because we’ve done so our entire careers, all over the world. We’re the best at this and I think it’s to a point now that pretty much everyone realizes that. We aren’t the timid ones any longer.”
Both Omega and Ibushi started as junior heavyweights, but the concept–though it works perfectly in mixed martial arts–is antiquated in pro wrestling where fans thirst to see diverse match-ups in 2018.
“That’s what makes pro wrestling so cool, to see a giant wrestle someone very small,” said Nick Jackson. “It makes the stories entertaining. We will be fine in the heavyweight division because we wrestle around the world already doing that same thing. It’ll be no different in New Japan Pro Wrestling.”
Professional jealousy from other teams could be inferred as one of the reasons why the Bucks have yet to make the leap to the heavyweight division.
“Whoever is in the ring across from us are the intimidated ones,” said Matt Jackson. “‘Can we keep up with these guys?’ ‘Will fans cheer them louder than us?’ ‘Will their style and chemistry make us look less great?’ We bring out the most competitive side of our opponents, no matter their size.
Omega, who has constantly championed the Bucks’ work since his 2014 arrival into Bullet Club, can relate to the struggle. The former IWGP junior heavyweight champion also fought behind closed doors to establish himself as a heavyweight, which is no easy task in New Japan.
“I have no doubt the Bucks will be successful,” said Omega. “Worldwide they’re already the best, so now is the time for New Japan Pro Wrestling fans to see that, too. For too long their talents were wasted in the junior division. It always felt strange, even wrong. It was like watching Kobe Bryant play street ball or Tiger Woods competing in mini golf. The Bucks are in a league of their own.”
Naturally, the lone dissenting voice came from the free-thinking Ibushi.
“The Young Bucks will be successful no matter which division they fight in, including the heavyweight division, but it might be difficult for heavyweight wrestlers to keep up with what the Young Bucks do best,” said Ibusi. “So the junior division may be more suitable. That’s where they have their best matches.”
The tag match between the Golden Lovers and the Young Bucks, which is expected to main event the show, will also differentiate itself through a serious focus on tag team wrestling and four of the most talented wrestlers on planet earth.
“It means a lot to finally compete with Kenny on a platform like this,” said Matt Jackson. “We are all outside-the-box-thinkers and very likeminded individuals, so it’ll make for an interesting performance, to say the least. Kenny might feel like he’s in there with himself.”
Tag team wrestling is often an afterthought. WWE just held a tag team battle royal that was won by a singles star, yet New Japan has a commitment to excellence in tag team wrestling and the Bucks are the signature tag team outside of the WWE Universe. Upholding that standard at Strong Style Evolved is next on the Bucks’ long list of goals.
“We’ve helped tag team wrestling grow outside of the WWE,” said Nick Jackson. “We’ve helped many promotions grow by relying on us and it’s a huge compliment to have us main event shows with us on top.”
“The fact that NJPW has the confidence to put this match on last, and headline a huge show like this, means a lot,” added Matt Jackson. “It shows that they realize the importance of this story we are telling. They realize the four of us are big enough stars to carry a show of this magnitude. For this experiment to be successful, we will have to take the viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride. We will have to have the best match of the night, and we will have to pop a giant TV rating. We will show the world that tag team wrestling is box office.”
Omega and Ibushi were not shy about their game plan. The key to victory for the Golden Lovers is to separate the Bucks, making the Jacksons more of singles acts than an ensemble.
“Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson are one of the best tag teams in the world,” said Ibushi. “Kenny and I both know that, and they have a strong advantage because they’ve worked together so much longer. They are superior as the tag team, but we’re superior as singles wrestlers. So we’ll have to isolate and beat them one by one in order to defeat them.”
Omega concurred, adding that their blueprint for success includes isolation.
“Ibushi and I will have to recapture our old chemistry while taking full advantage of the small difference in size,” said Omega. “Speed, technique, and strength of double team maneuvers all seem even. I feel like the difference-maker will either be the Bucks’ familiarity with one another or Ibushi’s and my experience as big match wrestlers. Isolating the Bucks may be our key to victory.”
Seldom does a match, especially of the tag team variety, generate this much interest. The worldwide leader in professional wrestling is WWE, but the Bucks, Ibushi, and Omega have all caught the eye of the adoring public.
Ibushi and Omega have a rich storyline that is as unique as it is legitimate. Then, on the other side, there are the Bucks, who have found their spot in the business. Omega had one of the biggest years of anyone in wrestling in 2017, and he is bringing his magic to this tag match on Sunday. All four tell a great story, and they have delivered a very compelling backstory to lead viewers to this journey.
"Though I may be the face and most outspoken NJPW wrestler to spearhead this global movement, every man in this main event wants to make a difference,” said Omega. “This match should absolutely close the show.
“I’m not sure what to expect. But I can promise a display that features the true potential and beauty of tag team wrestling.”