My translation of a feature containing interview quotes on Kenny Omega that appeared in Kettle Vol 46 in December of 2018. As always, my annotations are in [], and annotations by the original publication are in ().

Original text and images © Hakuhodo Kettle, Ohta Publishing Company.

Note: pull quotes may differ from actual answers. This is part of the editing in the original.

Evolving Wrestling in Order to Change New Japan and the World

Ten years have passed since he came to Japan with the dream to change the world through wrestling. Finally he is here, at the top of Japan’s biggest promotion, overcoming the sworn friend he once was so jealous of. What is the next stage that the new champion Kenny Omega has set his sights on?

When the Canadian King of the Anywhere Match met his friend for life in Japan

Ten years after coming to Japan, Kenny Omega finally wears the IWGP Heavyweight Championship [belt] around his waist, the highest belt in New Japan. He’s known as the “Best Bout Machine”—who sets the fans on fire with his top-of-the-world technique and performance—but the path to arrive here was no easy one.

“I always wanted to be a pro wrestler since I was a kid. I loved WWF (now WWE), and I was obsessed with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. At that time, I was an ice hockey player, and my grades were good enough to even earn a scholarship. But I declined. All I wanted was to become a wrestler.”

He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Here, as a teenager, Kenny held his own [wrestling] events, called “backyard wrestling”. The fans who watched him exhibit wrestling in a simple ring in the garden of his home or a park were almost exclusively friends who lived nearby. Kenny says it’s similar to school wrestling in Japan.

“I had no technical [skill] whatsoever, but even so, my friends were happy. My wrestling made them feel something. So I thought, if I can properly train and learn a lot of different wrestling styles, then I can give even more things to the people watching.”

Later, he tried being in a promotion under the wing of WWE, but due to a difference in the direction where he wanted to go [and where WWE wanted him to], he left within a year’s time. [Kenny] recalls: “Their way of doing business wasn’t very interesting, and I knew this wasn’t the place where I would be able to show my true self.” Searching for the potential of wrestling, he did matches in a lot of different places, like [at] lakes and on sand hills. That extreme style earned him the nickname of “Canadian King of the Anywhere Match”

“I was always on the lookout for the best way to express myself, and along the way I suffered a lot of setbacks as well. But through that, I found Ibushi.”

At the time, DDT was a small indie promotion, and they had made headlines with their unconventional events that exemplified “anywhere wrestling”. And the central figure in all of that, someone Kenny would later call “the person he loves”, was Ibushi Kôta.

There was a man in Japan who practiced the same wrestling as he was. Together with him, he could probably change the world…In order to wrestle in DDT, Kenny came to Japan for the first time in August of 2008.

After overcoming jealousy, the roles [in his relationship] with his sworn friend were reversed

“Immediately after meeting Ibushi I felt that together, we could become the best in the world. That’s why we formed a tag team.”

After the fateful meeting with Ibushi, as a tag team the Golden☆Lovers (G☆L) rose to stardom in an instant. But in November of 2014, when Kenny, chasing after Ibushi, moved to New Japan, they parted ways. [Kenny] thought that, in order to quickly catch up with an ever-more successful Ibushi, they couldn’t be on the same team.

“I had always felt jealousy towards Ibushi,” Kenny says. In order to change his image after joining the foreign heel faction of Bullet Club, he even forbade himself from using the Japanese he had worked so hard to learn.

In reality I want to be together with Ibushi, but if I am, I won’t be able to surpass him. This dilemma changed Kenny’s [way] of wrestling, and it brought him as far as the tremendous achievement of being the first foreigner in history to win the G1 CLIMAX (G1).

In the main event of the Tôkyô Dome show at the beginning of the [next] year, he faced Okada Kazuchika. Though regrettably he lost, the intense fight was highly praised throughout the world. And then this year, on June 9th at the Ôsaka-jô show, he defeated Okada and earned the right to wear the IWGP Heavyweight Championship [belt] he had always coveted around his waist. No one was left anymore who thought that he was inferior to Ibushi in either popularity or talent. On the contrary, it even feels like now, Ibushi is the one who is chasing after Kenny.

“I have mostly done everything I want to do as a singles player. I no longer feel jealousy towards Ibushi. That’s why I want to win the tag belts as the G☆L next. But right now, we’re not on equal footing. Ibushi now is the same as I was before. He wants to become champion more than he wants to tag. I would even give him the belt if that makes him happy. But I can’t say this. Because unless Ibushi crushes me on his own, we won’t be able to become the best tag team.”

[I was told] by the fans that it was my fault Ibushi didn’t take the belt

This year, Kenny and Ibushi faced each other twice. The first time they fought was on the last day of the G1 block matches, in Nippon Budôkan, where Kenny lost. Ibushi advanced to the finals for the first time in his life. And the second time, they battled in a threeway that had [Kenny’s] stablemate Cody added to the mix, on October 8th at the Ryôgoku show.

“Ibushi had a chance in the threeway. But in that moment when he pinned Cody and got so close to becoming champion, I intervened. I was told by Ibushi’s fans that it was my fault he wasn’t able to take the belt. Of course, I want from the bottom of my heart for Ibushi to become champion. However, I can’t just hand him [the belt]. So, he is unhappy. That’s why I had to give the match everything I had.
I really think it was predestined that Ibushi would win the G1 and fight the champion, me, in the Tôkyô Dome. But sadly, he couldn’t win in the finals. That was painful, and I thought, what a cruel world this is. But, as long as I keep defending [the belt], I have no doubt that the chance to fight Ibushi again in a singles match will come again. Next year, New Japan will have an event in Madison Square Garden (MSG) too. My goal right now is to come face to face with Ibushi on that big stage.”

However, if he wants to stay champion until the MSG show, there is a wall he must overcome. And that is Tanahashi Hiroshi, with whom he will clash on the last Tôkyô Dome show of the Heisei Era. Tanahashi struggled with being in bad shape due to repeated injuries, as well as a worsening condition, but this year in the G1, he was firing on all cylinders. By defeating Ibushi in the finals and winning [the G1], he earned the right to challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.

“I don’t think Tanahashi is the strongest in New Japan because he won the G1. I don’t think he’s even in the top six. However, after he won, he defended the briefcase against Okada and Jay White and proved a little bit what he is capable of. That’s why I have changed my opinion on him just a bit. He has the potential to enter the top six if he can show that energetic Tanahashi of old. If that Tanahashi comes out at the Tôkyô Dome, things might get interesting. But if it’s the same Tanahashi as always, then I’m sorry, but the difference [between us] is just going to be too big (laughs).”

A war of wrestling ideologies

At the press conference for the Tôkyô Dome show, a bitter war of words unfolded [between Kenny and Tanahashi] revolving around their different views on what the ideal wrestling [style] is. “Kenny’s wrestling has no class”, “Tanahashi’s wrestling is antiquated” [and so forth]…What in the world does Kenny feel like is the problem with the Ace who has supported New Japan for so many years?

“I want to make New Japan Pro Wrestling more popular in the whole world. I think with my style, I can realize that. But if Tanahashi becomes champion, then New Japan won’t become a worldwide brand. Tanahashi only has the old New Japan style. This year, we had a lot of matches overseas, and next year there will be even more. If Tanahashi is carrying the belt at that time, then the era won’t change, and we’ll just return to the old era. I’m really afraid of that, because everything I’ve built up until now will be destroyed. I have to defend the belt at the Tôkyô Dome, no matter what.”

So what is this style that Kenny calls “world-class”?

“In the past, it was enough if you only showed wrestling in the ring. But at some point, the fans are going to get bored with that. I have studied a lot of sports. Not just ice hockey, but beach volleyball and basketball [and more], and I’ve done jûjutsu as well. And everything at a high level. I’ve learned a lot of athletic mindsets.

At the 10/8 Ryôgoku show, he faced Cody and Ibushi in a threeway match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. For the first time in their history, he got the three-count over Ibushi, although under unusual rules. Immediately after, he called out to the collapsed Ibushi, and, rather than break out into joy [over his victory], carefully cared for his dear friend. Their relationship reflects in Kenny’s complex expression.

And not just sports. From Japanese games I learned various storytelling ways as well. I’ve played games, thought about why they make me feel this way, and analyzed what I can do to best give the viewers these feelings. My head is filled with a multitude of cultures. This style of mine, that nobody can imitate, was born by applying a lot of my experiences to wrestling.
That’s why there is a lot of variation in my matches, and nothing is ever the same. If I can do an athletic style, then I can do comedy as well. I’m able to have matches that reach people worldwide because I tell a different story every time.”

However…So says Kenny, comparing himself and Tanahashi.

“Tanahashi is too much of a pro wrestling fan, and he only has ideas inspired by pro wrestling. You can’t change the world with that.”

There’s not the slightest trace left of the jealousy he once felt towards Ibushi as Kenny talks about his own ideals. After several months since he won the belt, Kenny has become a splendid champion for New Japan.

“This might come off as pretentious, but it’s the truth, so I’m going to say it. There’s this movie called ‘Rocky’, right? Sylvester Stallone himself wrote the script for that, acted in it, and became a star. As a wrestler, I’m Stallone in ‘Rocky’. I act out the script that I write, and everything turns out how I picture it. For example, it’s said that Okada’s best matches are with me. Same for Naitô, Gotô, Ishii, I’m everyone’s best bout. My career in New Japan is a little bit too one-sided.”

Tanahashi and Kenny are set to clash at the 1.4. Tôkyô Dome show. How will the tides of their war of ideology affect New Japan in the future?!

As champion, he has entered a position of being pursued [by others], and states firmly that he has fulfilled the things he wants to do as a singles player. However, even these words, overflowing with confidence, will lack the finishing touches if he doesn’t win at the Tôkyô Dome.

“I’ve actually never won in the main event of the Tôkyô Dome. New Year’s Eve is the last day of the year in the world, but in New Japan, it’s the Tôkyô Dome on 1.4. And it’s the show that wrestling fans all over the world pay attention to, as well. I want to win as champion in such a place, and end this wonderful year with a happy feeling.”