June of 2018 is set to be an unforgettable month in the career of Kenny Omega.
The wrestling star, whose legend continues to reach new heights even without the WWE machine behind him, challenges Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP heavyweight title on June 9 at New Japan’s Dominion show in Osaka, Japan.
But Omega has one more major moment in store for the upcoming month. He is running his own New Japan show on Friday, June 29 in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the 2018 CEO Fighting Game Championships with CEO promoter Alex Jebailey for a merging of professional wrestling and eSports.
“CEO and Kenny Omega present New Japan Pro Wrestling” will be an opportunity for Omega to see how pro wrestling can coalesce with eSports.
“I’ve put together a card I’m really proud of,” said Omega. “It’s going to be a great all-around show.”
The show will be a five-match card with at least two dark matches. Match announcements will be forthcoming, likely toward the middle of June, and Omega is working to have the show streamed online.
CEO is one of the largest fighting game competitions in the world, and its promoter, Alex Jebailey, is a wrestling fan who has given a unique feel to the tournament by having a wrestling ring for the gamers to use as the site of their grand finals, as well as wrestling-like entrances for his eSport competitors.
This will be Omega’s fourth straight year attending CEO, an event that has seen his battles (and victories) over WWE star and fellow gamer Xavier Woods in Street Fighter. New Japan officials gave him the green light for a show at this year’s event.
“New Japan is still learning about the concept of eSports and how this has the potential for them to be seen by new fans, but they believe in me,” said the 34-year-old Omega. “Alex Jebailey has a respect for the art of pro wrestling, and he bases the flow and style of his shows like pro wrestling to make them so entertaining. It’s not just a fun experience for the competitors, it’s memorable for the spectators, too. Ever since we met, we thought it would be cool to merge worlds and run a full-scale wrestling show at a fighting game event.”
Omega shared that immersing himself in the CEO gaming community has been one of the best experiences of his life. He wants to share the experience with the wrestling world while also highlighting New Japan.
“This is an event that keeps growing, and each year I’ve felt more part of the fighting game community,” said Omega. “I really wanted to give back, and the best way for me to do that is with a wrestling show. You always have that self-doubt, and I’ve asked myself, ‘How many people will want to watch this?’ But I really feel bringing a full-scale New Japan show will be something that everyone there can appreciate.”
Before Omega can fully engage in the gaming world and unleash fury as "Street Fighter’s" Abigail, he must first focus on his upcoming opportunity at Osaka-jo Hall in Osaka, as he challenges Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP heavyweight championship on June 9 at New Japan’s Dominion card.
The Dominion show is arguably the second most significant New Japan show of the year behind January’s Wrestle Kingdom. This year’s show includes the Young Bucks challenging EVIL and Sanada for the IWGP tag titles, Chris Jericho vs. Tetsuya Naito for the Intercontinental title, Rey Mysterio against a yet-to-be announced opponent, and the fourth installment of Omega-Okada.
“For Okada, this is a match for his pride,” said Omega. “For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position again where I can say this is the biggest match of my career.”
The Omega-Okada series stands at 1-1-1, as each man has won a match and lost a match, with the draw coming at last year’s Dominion show.
With every Omega-Okada match, there are people ready to criticize Omega’s work at a more acute level than the match that came before. There are certainly those who want to see Omega fail, including wrestlers in the business. Omega has autonomy in his matches, instead of writers and bookers instructing him how to perform, which leads to a fair amount of professional jealousy. Yet he wants to do part four of this series justice for the fans who are legitimately excited to see this, of whom there are plenty.
“I, as Kenny Omega the character and the person, realize I am not the person who was rightfully in line for this title shot,” said Omega. “The reason I’ve got this opportunity is that Okada has made his rounds and defeated everyone, sometimes twice over, but he’s realized there is a blemish in his record. That’s the draw from last year’s Dominion and I also beat him in the G1. You can make the excuse that he was beaten up, bloodied, and fatigued from the schedule of the G1, but then so was I. So he has no excuse. I wrestled all of the same opponents, we were in the same block.
“I may not get a chance like this ever again. Regardless of what I have going on with my life–the tension between the Young Bucks, the tension with Cody, my promise to make Ibushi and me the best tag team in the world -- I have to set aside this chunk of time to bring myself into singles wrestling champion quality shape. That doesn’t mean time stands still. Does that mean Cody may interfere? Yes, Cody may interfere. Does it mean Being The Elite continues? Yes, the BTE story is going to continue. So life goes on as I’m training for this opportunity.”
An outside factor heavily weighing on Omega is that, for every big match, he almost always had the Young Bucks in his corner. But that will not be the case in his upcoming title bout with Okada, as the internal strife within the Bullet Club storyline will not allow the Bucks to be ringside.
“For me, that’s not a character thing or a BTE storyline,” said Omega. “The Bucks are pillars of my support. I don’t feel alone when they’re there, I don’t even feel pressure when they’re there. I’m staring at the most physically taxing match of my career, and they won’t be there. That’s very strange. Aside from the 2016 G1, when I had to go it alone, they’ve been there for everything. The idea of not having Matt and Nick has affected me. This time is going to be different.”
Omega teamed with Kota Ibushi, who will be in his corner for the upcoming Dominion match against Okada, at this past March’s Strong Style Evolved show in Long Beach, California against the Young Bucks in an incredibly gripping match. Omega was pleased with the match and the fact that it closed the show, but particularly proud of the feeling it stirred in viewers.
“New Japan Pro Wrestling is my company, but I’ll be the first to admit we did not come with a powerhouse card [to Strong Style Evolved],” said Omega. “A lot of the pressure was put on myself, Ibushi, and the Young Bucks to really deliver. We took a chance and went outside of our comfort zone to deliver something on an emotional level that no one had ever before seen in professional wrestling. Maybe we caught people off-guard. The potential was there for an athletic showcase, but we wanted to accomplish something different in the match. Lately, that’s been my MO in professional wrestling: not to see something based out of shock factor, but to watch my match and feel something.
“You see enough of that in PWG, NXT, and the New Japan juniors, which is basically all shock factor with insane athleticism and crazy moves and things that make you wince in pain. Even if I could be that guy, I don’t want to be anymore. I have it in me to explore these other options and make people feel something. I want to instill a memory.”
The physicality led to the story in Long Beach, instead of the tried-and-true formula that the story sets the table for the match.
“In wrestling, from the time that I was growing up until now, we’ve seen a lot of black-and-white storytelling,” explained Omega. “There is nothing wrong with that. You know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is, and you know exactly who you should cheer. For me, having seen almost 30 years of that, it’s more interesting to sew more of the intricacies of the more human side of the pro wrestlers who are wrestling. It’s not always black-and-white. We have the creative freedom to do whatever we want. People should feel what we are doing.
“I may be the good guy within the Cody trying to assume leadership of the Bullet Club storyline, but that doesn’t mean I’m without my faults or that I haven’t done bad things or that I haven’t been irresponsible with my leadership of the Bullet Club. We’re always inserting little tidbits that show how Cody isn’t all that bad. We’re not painting him as an evil character; it’s important to make him relatable and show that he’s not completely in the wrong. Even my tension with the Young Bucks–and sure, the Young Bucks have been manipulated by Cody, but shouldn’t I, as a friend, be more willing to forgive? Why can’t I let it go? I may be the good guy, or lesser evil, but that doesn’t mean I’m flawless.”
Omega has long dreamed of the day when the IWGP heavyweight title is draped over his shoulder, but he has even loftier goals for his upcoming affair with Okada: whether or not he emerges as champion, he wants wrestling fans to feel his work in the match long after the referee raises the winner’s hand.
“I have to hit people on an emotional level,” said Omega. “There has to be more than just the moves and the sum of its parts. Now, with how athletic the current generation of pro wrestler is, that should almost be mandatory. You have to hit the fan on a personal level instead of shocking them with 10 sequences of flawlessly executed high-flying maneuvers. That should certainly be a style in pro wrestling, but for me, at this point in my career, I want people who watch my stuff to feel something.”
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Over the past five years, Omega has continually jumped hurdles that appeared unsurpassable. He became a fixture in New Japan’s junior heavyweight division, then broke barriers by making the leap into the heavyweight realm and overtook the reigns of the Bullet Club. His G1 Climax victory, at the time, seemed like it could serve as his career highlight, until delivering more compelling work in his second G1 last summer. His series of matches with Okada, as well as the Wrestle Kingdom match with Chris Jericho and the tag team main event at Strong Style Evolved, have placed a bright beam of light on his importance to the international expansion of New Japan.
Omega now looks to unite the seemingly distinct worlds of pro wrestling and eSports with his New Japan show on June 29 in Daytona Beach.
“I will be wrestling on the card at CEO, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Omega. “I want to make a completely balanced wrestling card that shows off how exciting and cool New Japan can be, and that’s for both long-time and first-time viewers. I want this to be a fun show from top to bottom, one that adds to an already cool experience at CEO.”
Omega believes that New Japan’s presence will only enhance the CEO experience.
“I believe there are people out in the world, like me, that want to be entertained at the rawest level,” said Omega. “They don’t need pro wrestling governed by a certain set of rules. To me, if something is fun and it’s entertaining, then it’s fun and entertaining. I’ve found success in tackling professional wrestling that way, by believing it’s good if people are entertained and feel an emotion watching by what I do in or out of the ring.
“I’ve believed in myself and bet on myself in the past, and I’m doing it again. This is something people will really enjoy.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.