New Japan U.S. Wrestling Champ Kenny Omega Comes Cleaner
Maybe Kenny Omega’s head was still spinning from a loss of blood. After all, it hadn’t even been 48 hours since Chris Jericho busted him open with Omega’s own IWGP United States Championship belt. Or perhaps New Japan Pro Wrestling’s first-ever U.S. titleholder was exhausted after exacting revenge on Y2J the following day during a heated press conference that made recent Floyd Mayweather Vs. Conor McGregor spectacles look like so much theater.
But when Omega and I spoke earlier this week, his speech patterns were subdued to the point of slow motion. It’s not that he betrayed no emotion about his wildly anticipated, once-in-a-lifetime match with future WWE Hall of Famer Jericho at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 12 on January 8th in Tokyo. Over the course of a 20-plus-minute phone call, the 34-year-old breakout star and Bullet Club leader laid bare his high hopes and enthusiasm for what he and his adversary can accomplish that night. He just did so in a very considered, thoughtful, monotone manner. So as Omega licks his wounds and warms up for the biggest bout of his lengthy career, here are some of his reflections on staying one step ahead of expectations, channeling Hogan v. Macho Man and whether NJPW is for life.
You always want to tell good, fresh stories in the ring. Was that the main appeal of this match with Jericho?
At the end of each year, everything builds toward Wrestle Kingdom anyway, so you sort of need that endgame storyline. For me, who’s been working diligently to build up this U.S. title, it’s the thing I needed to make it a topic worth talking about. I’m a big fan of not only telling stories in the ring but telling stories people haven’t seen before. What we’re doing right now is original because it’s something only a guy like Chris Jericho could pull off. That part of it excites me. When you strip it away, it’s not a complex story, but as it goes along, we’ve been changing up the details, and it’s really taken on a life of its own and felt like something special day by day. It’s feeling fun, and I feel like the fans are having fun too, and that’s the most important part.
There’s an almost Hogan v. Macho Man, old-school buildup happening.
Yeah, it is a little Hogan/Macho Man, with [color commentator] Don Callis playing the role of Elizabeth. [Laughs]
Is it motivating for you to be the guy who’s brought out a side of Jericho we haven’t been able to see in WWE for years?
When we kickstarted the angle, I don’t think either of us really knew what it would turn out to be. So I don’t think us being unchained has led to this new wild-man Chris Jericho. With the combination of all these reactions from all types of fans, it became what it has, and now it is definitely something you couldn’t see on WWE programming, but I don’t think it was originally designed to be that. It felt at first, it was just gonna be a dream match for wrestling fans that were in the know, and now it’s become this cool little topic amongst not only fans that have known the career of Chris Jericho but have followed mine. A lot of our new New Japan fans have just started watching from 2012 onward, so they don’t even know who Chris Jericho is, but they do understand he’s a huge megastar, and they can only go with what they see every time he makes an appearance or what I tell them. There is that side where I’m the more known act and have to introduce Chris Jericho to them. All different fans are being absorbed in this angle. The way to keep them all interested is the way we’ve gone about it so far.
It sounds like you’re comfortable with the symbiosis that exists between the fans and the product in contemporary wrestling.
We could make this a technical masterpiece if we wanted to, but at the end of the day, I feel like the way to capture the attention of not only the common fan but the longtime fans was to give them something old school. I don’t think there’s been blood in a New Japan ring for nine, 10 years. If there had been, we wouldn’t have gone about it that way.
And the higher ups were OK being laissez-faire with your “there will be blood” approach?
I’ve been lucky where I’ve asked for a little bit of trust from the company. When you put yourself in a situation like that, you either hit consecutive home runs or you’re dead in the water, because there’s a lot of money on the line, there’s a reputation on the line. And a lot of times I really forced them to step out of their comfort zone. Between last year’s G1 and now with Jericho, I have done a lot of things the company isn’t necessarily comfortable with, but they’re seeing positive growth from it. Drawing blood is a faux paus. They don’t like it at all. Our parent company makes its money through anime and card games.
Generally, NJPW is almost family friendly, but Omega Vs. Jericho feels like something standing apart from all of that.
Yeah, and even if it wasn’t what they’ve been expecting, we want to give them something completely different from what’s gonna be on the rest of the card. And not just different because, ‘Hey, it’s a WWE legend coming in to invade New Japan.’ From how we went about it, how we’re going about it and how we will execute the match, we want it to stand out from anything in recent memory. It’s really important for us to do that.
This is the first time in a while you’re the more sympathetic competitor in a big match? Is that something you’re at ease with?
That wasn’t the intent. I actually thought we’d be in a situation where there was no good guy. I thought it would feel more like, “Our guy versus your guy.” And as time went by, it’s become where people are feeling sympathy for this hideous beating I’ve taken and allowing me to show this extra layer to my character I haven’t been able to show in New Japan. Even my most physical matches in New Japan have all been athletic contests, and generally they’ve all been fair and square. It’s been this new strong style we’ve been trying to create in New Japan, with my own personal style. But this is something even more different. It’s not going to look anything like my three [Kazuchika] Okada matches of G1 matches or matches with Michael Elgin or [Tomohiro] Ishii. This, the aggression comes from a different place. Even being in the ring, I can sense a different energy from the fans, and I think they appreciate the real-fight feel, and it makes me excited, and it’s a challenge for me, too.
So if we’re talking this time next year, are the odds best that you’ll be spearheading a more robust rollout of New Japan America?
It’s hard to picture what the situation is gonna look like. [Omega Vs. Jericho] is a real self-contained story that can maybe only happen once, but I’m excited to see where it leads because it’s showing more of my range and a little bit of self-discovery on my part. I’m able to explore now this side of pro wrestling that is generally regarded here as taboo, but it’s the wrestling I grew up watching. It goes back to the territorial stuff with Ric Flair, the way he’d promote his matches. You can’t do it anymore. There’s always an A, B and C point you have to hit, and things are overly scripted and micro-managed, and now we’re gauging by how everything feels. Everything that this match evolves into has been an organic evolution, and that’s why we haven’t lost people yet.