Translation of the feature that Okamoto did on Kenny for Number PLUS in 2017. As always, my annotations are in , and additions by the original publication are in ().
Original text and image © Bungei Shunju, Matsuoka Ittetsu.
NOTE: Pull quotes may differ from the actual quotes. This is part of the editing in the original.
He stood taller than any victor, and shone more beautiful than any loser. A crowd of 11,756 people paid their respect to Kenny Omega with standing ovations. The fierce battle to the death with Okada Kazuchika in Ôsaka-jô Hall on June 11th 2017 ended after a full 60 minute time limit draw. Kenny was unable to get his hands on the IWGP belt due to the champion’s right of defending in case of a draw, but rather, he had earned the unshakable praise of being “the world’s best bout machine”. The eyes of everyone in the worldwide pro wrestling community are glued to the man who fights in the ring in Japan, far from his home of Canada. It’ll be 9 years this year that Kenny first came to Japan.
He had an interest in backyard wrestling Since his time as a young boy, and after his debut he was a member of an organization affiliated with the world’s largest wrestling promotion, WWE, in 2006, but he felt a disappointed and alienated by the divergence of his ideal and reality, and he quit.
“While I was in WWE, I thought, this isn’t the pro wrestling I had grown up loving as a kid. I couldn’t do things how I wanted to do them, not with my name, my moves, my promos, anything. The company dictated everything. I had lots of things and ideas of what I wanted to do, but in WWE I could do none of them.”
Kenny, who had already experienced two knee surgeries, was 24 years old at the time, and he panicked that his professional career might be over soon. When he was searching for a place where he could exhibit his best performances before reaching his physical peak, what came to his mind was Japan, which he had always thought of as fitting his style. His self marketing bore fruit, he got an offer from DDT and crossed the ocean in July of 2008, in an effort to shake off the despair and uneasiness. It was the dramatic opening act of the play.
The biggest reason why he had chosen DDT—was because of a man called Ibushi Kôta.
“Of course, since I had only seen him in videos and never met him myself, I had no idea what kind of guy he would be. In WWE and in Japan and everywhere, everyone was doing matches thinking that this was the way wrestling is supposed to be. But Ibushi isn’t like that. I wanted to go to DDT because I wanted to have matches with Ibushi.”
The first singles match they had on August 6th of the same year, under special hardcore rules in a best out of three falls contest, is to this day the match Kenny remembers the most out of all the matches in his career. Kenny took the first pinfall from Ibushi with a Michinoku Driver II onto the chairs on the outside, but Ibushi took the second fall with a surprising Phoenix Splash from a vending machine standing outside the venue. At last, Kenny fell to a buzz-saw kick after an avalanche dragon suplex in the third fall. It was an unprecedented fight where every move was of such high quality. Kenny fought not only with his opponent in the match, but with what was normally accepted in wrestling, and while he lost to the former, he smashed the latter to pieces.
“I’m a wrestler who can set his sights on the top”. The fateful encounter on the island in the pacific turned that confidence into certainty. And deeply moved by Ibushi, who carried the same physical ability and ways of thinking as Kenny, and was able to take both out of him, he cried tears of joy.
“That was the first time I ever cried after a match. At first I thought I would be satisfied with just being able to go to Japan. My family was against me working in Japan, and my girlfriend at the time wanted to get married and have children. But after that match was over, the strongest feeling I had was that it would be a waste if I stopped here and now. What should I do next? Either way, I want to come back to Japan and get a belt. If I could do that together with Ibushi…then maybe we could become the best tag team in the world. My dreams were endless.”
The tag team of the “Golden Lovers” became an overnight sensation in the wrestling world. They wrestled for the major promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the match in which they beat Prince Devitt (now Finn Bálor in WWE) and Taguchi Ryûsuke to become the IWGP Junior Tag Team champions in October of 2010 at Ryûgoku won that year’s Best Bout Award in the Tokyo Sports Puroresu Awards.
The two of them went from beyond wrestling partners to life partners.
That year in June, during the finals of New Japan’s “Best of the Super Juniors”, Ibushi dislocated his right shoulder and lost the match. Kenny had taken part in the same tournament, but that day, Ibushi was so depressed that he, wanting to avoid being with his friends, went home on his own. But Kenny couldn’t leave his partner alone. Breaking off from his friends holding him back, Kenny went to Ibushi’s house and in tears said,
“You can’t be alone at a time like this. When things hurt the most it’s your friends who are there for you.”
In truth, he was envious. He was proud to see his friend stand in the ring during the finals of a major tournament, but at the same time he pitied himself for not being able to join him in the same ring. But from the moment Ibushi got injured, he didn’t care about any of that anymore. Ibushi gave in to Kenny’s persistent enthusiasm, and that night everyone made up and ate dinner together. Looking back at that time, Nakazawa Michael, who has been a dear friend of both for a long time, said,
“I think in the past Ibushi was suspicious of Kenny for trying to use him. But around that time there was a turning point, and his view of Kenny changed.”
Before they knew it, the two of them had changed from wrestling partners to life partners.
But as the stages of their stardom became bigger, so the wheels of fate started to turn frantically. Maybe it was because of the nationality barrier, but in contrast with the high expectations for the future that were vested in the young Japanese star Ibushi, Kenny couldn’t quite lose the unwanted assessment of being “his foreign wrestling partner”.
“I didn’t want to become the weak spot of the team. ‘The two of them are a nice team, but Ibushi is better than Kenny’. I was always thought of like that by the Japanese fans. I felt that we were promoted like that by the company too. I didn’t say it, but it hurt a lot.”
From that time onward, Kenny grew harder and more stoic, and his matches were more ghastly. His motivation wasn’t the hungry mentality that is so characteristic of foreign wrestlers. He wanted to be seen as equal to Ibushi by those around him, though. He wanted to confidently stand next to his friend. For that, he had to become better than Ibushi. He had to get more Best Bouts. When he left the ring, and those feelings became too negative, there were times when he fell into self hatred too.
“There was a time when I worried a lot. Of course our relationship as friends was more important to me. I did my best to think about why I wanted to overcome Ibushi’s qualities. Does a real friend really think about things like that? Am I a bad guy? I didn’t know.”
The ring reflected with brutal clarity their friendship in which respect and trust, and envy and jealousy had intermingled. On the one hand, they glowed with an unparalleled brilliant shine when they tagged together, and on the other hand, their singles match for DDT in August of 2012 in Nippon Budôkan became a series of intense, life-threatening battles. Kenny didn’t know how he should express his feelings. So, instead of words, he came at Ibushi with everything he had.
With miraculous speed, the two wrestlers climbed up the rungs of the ladder. Ibushi came under double contract with DDT and New Japan in October of 2013, and, as if chasing after that, Kenny moved to New Japan the following year. Both of them carried that determination in their hearts.
“Even if it hurts, for my personal growth it was better if I left Ibushi. I wanted to start over at zero with my new self.”
Like this, he would always stay wrapped up in his complicated feelings for his friend. And as a wrestler he would eternally chase behind him. Kenny split with Ibushi, and entered the foreign heel stable Bullet Club. He didn’t use his once trademark fluent Japanese, either. That way, he could concentrate on the matches alone. He abandoned his old self, and was reborn in black.
Everything he can do, I can do too. To prove that, he had to ascend into the heavyweight class just like Ibushi. However, because AJ Styles (now in WWE) reigned supreme as a heavyweight wrestler at the time, Kenny had to fulfill the role of playing alone in the junior heavyweight division. And he fell into the same dilemma as in the past.
It goes without saying that AJ is the top wrestler in the world. Kenny wanted to show that he could be at the same level. But, unable to even stand on the same stage or anywhere near it, he stood with mixed feelings in AJ’s corner for his match with Ibushi for the IWGP [Heavyweight Championship] in April of 2015 at Ryûgoku Kokugikan. All he could do was watch, even though he had the power to be equals with them… However, the chance he was waiting for showed itself in an ironic form.
In January 2016, AJ suddenly went to WWE at the same time as Nakamura Shinsuke. Ibushi, feeling that he had reached his limit with the double contracts with DDT, left both promotions. It was Kenny who became the leader of Bullet Club in AJ’s stead, and he now stood at the heart of New Japan that had been shaken by the loss of so many of their main players.
“I thought that finally, now the time had come to show my best. At that time, I was shocked by how depressed everyone was that those wrestlers had left. Do they really think that AJ and Shinsuke are everything? That the best in the world are AJ and Shinsuke? No. The true best in the world were me and Ibushi. Naitô (Tetsuya) was also killing it. If people there were giving their best, then we aren’t in a pinch. It was the beginning of a new era. I wanted to show that this new era would be more interesting.”
Kenny pushed himself to his utmost limits and continued fighting. To prove his true strength, to build the new era of New Japan—and to wait for the return of his friend.
At the same time, around his departure from both promotions, Ibushi had become so exhausted that he considered retiring for a while. “When things hurt the most it’s your friends who are there for you”. He probably wished for his friends to be there for him like they were back then, for them to speak kind words to him. But in the duration of six years, the Golden Lovers had changed.
“Even if it hurts, for my personal growth it was better if I left Ibushi. I wanted to start over at zero with my new self.”
“I thought that he would come back one day. I knew that if I ever surpassed him, he would definitely come back.”
In August of 2016, Kenny participated in New Japan’s biggest tournament, the G1 CLIMAX 26, and was able to win it on his first try. This was the first time in history a foreigner had ever accomplished the spectacular feat of winning the G1 CLIMAX. It was no coincidence that he tried to do Ibushi’s finisher, the Phoenix Splash, during the finals bout with Gotô Hirooki. When he was asked about his true intentions with that backstage, he was obstinate to not give any comment on that, but the next day in Tokyo Sports, Kenny revealed his heart.
“I want to leave two messages for him (Ibushi). First, that New Japan Pro Wrestling is the best place in the world. I’m still evolving, working hard. And then the other one. Today, I finally overcame you. Aren’t you….lonely by yourself? That’s why I’ll wait here for you.”
He continued to believe in fate while he hid his true feelings and tortured his body with pain. Bearing himself lonely and pure and noble in victory, Kenny held out proudly for his friend who was no longer there.
In the ring after his G1 victory, one more special thing occurred. Kenny opened the seal on speaking Japanese that day only, and spoke to the fans on the mic. “Japan is my home. New Japan is my home. That’s why I won’t go over there“.
“Shinsuke and AJ did some amazing things. But these two aren’t here anymore. That’s why I wanted to erase the worries that I might leave as quickly as possible. That I was doing amazing things too, but that I wouldn’t go to WWE. Maybe they wouldn’t have believed me if I had said “I love Japan”. I wanted to send a message, of course to the fans, but to the everyone watching the G1 tournament worldwide as well, and to WWE.”
It was hard to learn Japanese honorific language. Every time he had doubt about the peculiarities of grammar, he went to ask Nakazawa Michael, and he bought learning software too. To be able to 100% communicate with the other person everything he wanted to communicate, he mastered the language of this country. The world thought of WWE as the number one. But the the number one Kenny believed in was here in Japan, in New Japan. To destroy the accepted norm, the man who had declined the repeated offers by WWE send out proclamations of war again and again. As a crystallization of all his efforts in a strange country, Kenny’s fluent and beautifully strung together Japanese reached the ears of all the fans worldwide.
The finals of the G1 were a more than appropriate place to meet again with Ibushi in the ring.
Nearly one year passed since that summer. In the main event of the Tokyo Dome show on January 4th, 2017, Kenny lost against Okada, and in the aforementioned rematch at Ôsaka-jô, he couldn’t win either. At that time, a masked wrestler of unknown identity came to the ring in New Japan, but the man Kenny was waiting for didn’t show himself yet. But then, on June 20th in Kôrakuen Hall, the moment finally came. Ibushi Kôta’s name was announced as a participant in the G1 CLIMAX 27. At last Ibushi, after having gone wild as a freelancer in the ring in and outside of Japan, including in WWE, had returned to New Japan.
No one had awaited this day more than Kenny.
“I thought he wouldn’t come out if I didn’t win the belt. (laughs) Of course I was happy he’d come back, and I wanted to fight him again as soon as possible, and no place was more appropriate for meeting him again in the ring than the finals. I think it was the best possible outcome that we were in different blocks. Anything can happen in pro wrestling, so it’s hard to make promises, but I wanted to promise him that I would wait for him in the finals.”
Kenny had seized numerous “Japanese dreams” in the past. Today he’s hailed without a shadow of a doubt as the best wrestler in the world, but there is still a dream he has to fulfill.
“I wanted to become a wrestler who would be able to put on the best performances in the world. I’m the best all-round player in the world. But I haven’t been able to become IWGP champion yet. I know at the end there’s just one thing I’m missing. And that last piece is probably him.”
There’s a belt he can’t make his no matter how often he challenges for it. There’s an opponent he can’t defeat, no matter how many times he tries. That’s why, in order to win for sure the next time, he needs something special. The gods of pro wrestling have left this for him. No matter what his meeting with Ibushi in the near future will look like, it’s sure to lead Kenny to even greater heights. Take a hold of the last piece. You have the requirements to make all your dreams come true.