It was July 2016. I was waiting to get a haircut and I picked up a Sports Illustrated. One of the stories in it was about pro wrestling. I remember thinking, “Is Sports Illustrated so dry during the NFL off-season that they’re talking about wrestling?” But I read it anyway. And it wasn’t some WWE fluff piece like I was expecting. It was about a guy I’d heard of, but never seen—Kenny Omega. It talked about his journey from wrestling in Winnipeg to trying out for WWE Developmental, then missing a shot at AJPW only to end up making headlines in a small Japanese promotion called DDT, and finally finding his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling, moving to the heavyweight division, and taking over Bullet Club from AJ Styles. So that night, while my wife slept soundly and I stayed awake (just because she’s sleepy doesn’t mean “we’re sleepy”), I decided to search for a Kenny Omega match. The first thing I saw was “G1 Climax 26 B Block Final. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito”.
I know this looks like an extra from “Fast and Furious” and
an extra from “The Terminator” are fighting, but seriously, give it a chance
At the time, I didn’t know what the G1 was or who Tetsuya Naito was. I didn’t know any of the story lines except for a vague understanding that Bullet Club was like the nWo from WCW. So I started watching it. The commentary was in Japanese, so I had no chance of following along. The presentation looked so different from the WWE product I was used to, almost like it was from another time. The wrestling was crisp; a lot more strikes and kicks than I was used to. I remember thinking, “Wow, these guys are stiff. Is this dangerous?” Again, I had no idea about New Japan Pro Wrestling outside from what I heard on blogs, Reddit, and Wrestling Twitter. But I kept watching. That Kenny Omega sure is fast. Pretty big, too. And Naito was so cool and relaxed.
Then Kenny Omega did a suicide dive into the stands.
I’m pretty sure I yelled an expletive because my wife woke up, rather irritated. Then I showed her the dive. And I’m pretty sure she yelled an expletive.
That was the night I fell in love with New Japan Pro Wrestling. That was the night I became attached to Kenny Omega.
I found out everything I could about him. He symbolized everything that was right with pro wrestling. He was the anti-Roman Reigns. He was the guy Seth Rollins thought he was. He didn’t spend 15 minutes on the mic every night talking about how great he was. He proved himself in the ring. A few months later, Kenny has his Wrestle Kingdom main event match with Kazuchika Okada. I found it on YouTube and forced everyone to watch it. My wife. My kid. My friends. My in-laws. The guy that delivers for GrubHub in our neighborhood. I watched that match at least 20 times, in its entirety. I didn’t know pro wrestling could look like that. For the first time since I was 8-years-old, I wondered if I was watching something real.
“The Cleaner” was Kenny’s Bullet Club persona. A cleaner is organized crime slang for someone who makes problems go away. Kenny, on the other hand, came to the ring with mops and trash cans because he was clever and knew how to make himself the butt of the joke, but still be taken seriously. When he was in the ring, The Cleaner was crisp and exacting. A V-Trigger knee to the side of an opponent’s head could come out of nowhere. He ruthlessly deadlifted heavyweight opponents into Dragon Suplex’s and Powerbombs. When he took a hit, he sold it like he was dying, making sure his opponent looked fearsome and strong. He turned the ring into a theater. With nothing but facial expressions, he could draw you in and dance on your emotions. And then… The finisher. The One Winged Angel. Obnoxious and inconvenient as it was, it was devastating. And no one kicked out of it. Imagine coming from a world where you never expect a match to end without each wrestler doing their signature finishing move at least ten times each, then watching a guy whose move has become so legendary in the storyline, that wrestlers do everything possible to not end up in it. When Kenny hits the One Winged Angel, the match ends. Every. Time.
Finally, I got NJPWWorld and I looked up Kenny Omega matches. I saw outings as a Super Junior. I watched his match against the future Finn Balor. I watched the G1 Climax final against Hirooki Goto. I was hooked. I was a part of the Bullet Club army. I watched Being the Elite. I bought Bullet Club shirts for me and my wife. I followed his every career move, wondering if he would crossover to WWE or NXT—it was obvious they wanted him. When the G1 Special came to America and Kenny was fighting for the newly minted IWGP United States Championship, I made my sister watch it with us. And even she was into it. Well, she really liked Kenny’s abs, but you get the picture.
I mean, they are nice…
Falling in love with Kenny Omega also made me a fan of his opponents. I gained respect for the Young Bucks, who I had always been told were nothing but spot monkeys. I was introduced to Marty Scrull. I found out more about Okada and Tanahashi. I related to Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon. I developed a healthy and real fear for Minoru Suzuki and Suzuki-Gun. I was falling for New Japan, hard. And Kenny Omega was the reason. He was The Cleaner. The Best Bout Machine. The Golden Lover. The One Winged Angel.
If you’re not getting the video game references, you’re seriously on the wrong website.
But after several years of watching his highs and lows, his struggles and his triumphs, I watched him fall in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 13. He lost his IWGP Heavyweight Championship, just six months after winning it. Everything he worked for was gone, just like that. He had his last wing clipped. He was done, or so it seemed.
Would Kenny come back to New Japan? Would he have more amazing matches with people like Naito, Okada, Tanahashi, and White? Would he climb the mountain again and become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and reign over New Japan and all of pro wrestling, rightfully so, as the best wrestler in the world? Or would he take the money and go to a company like WWE where he’d quickly become a sideshow, involved in jilted-lover or hokey 80’s storylines? I was so tense throughout January 2019. Even when it became clear that he was not going to wrestle in WWE, I still didn’t know how things would play out.
Of course, Kenny was destined for All Elite Wrestling, the company backed by the Kahn family that was literally made for Kenny and his friends. Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, and Hangman Page finally had an American platform where they could show off the amazing wrestling that had drawn me to them when I started watching NJPW. An American audience now had easy access to the wrestling that I fell in love with. I went to the first show in Washington D.C. and I saw Kenny and the Bucks live for the first time. I was in awe. It was everything I ever wanted. Now I can see “The Cleaner” on TV every week!
But all that glitter was not gold.
It unfortunately did not take long to realize that the Kenny Omega I grew to love and admire in Japan was most likely still in Japan. The “All Elite” Kenny Omega looks like The Cleaner. He sounds like The Cleaner. The moves are mostly the same as The Cleaner. But this is not The Cleaner. THIS Kenny Omega is just repeating matches over and over with the same talent. THIS Kenny Omega is doing goofy schtick from Being The Elite that may work at a ROH house show, but doesn’t belong on prime time TV. THIS Kenny Omega is tagging with Hangman Page in an old, tired routine of “Odd Couple Tag Champions” that WWE does four or five times a year. Yes, like many other talents that have made their name in Japan, the product we get to see in the West is often not often the way it was in the East.
It’s just…not…the same…
It pains me to admit this to myself and it pains me to type it for others to read, but deep down, you know it’s true: Kenny Omega has become a “Superstar”. WWE adopted that term a long time ago for it’s wrestlers, mainly because they want to classify their “Independent Contractors” as actors and not athletes. AEW was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be presented like a real sport. No hokey storylines, no constant scripting, no goofy antics. But as the weeks go on, AEW is not the “Western New Japan” I had hoped for. It’s become “WWE Lite”. It’s better presented from WWE, but it’s not all that different. And with that, Kenny Omega has become just another “Superstar”. Very talented and exceptionally creative, but not all that different from the WWE and NXT stars. There’s no “Cleaner” here anymore. The “Best Bout Machine” is no more.
I know I’m probably the only one that didn’t see this as “genius”
Kenny Omega has become a Sports Entertainer. A mid-card Sports Entertainer.
AEW, much like WWE, has settled into the “standard fare” of American pro wrestling. You need a main hero, a main villain, a few side pieces for flavor, ten minutes or less of women’s wrestling and a lot of talking. Is Kenny the hero? No, that spot has clearly been given to Cody Rhodes. He is the only person allowed to enter through the center of the entrance ramp and his storylines dominate most episodes, not to mention social media. Is Kenny the villain? No, that belongs to another Canadian, Chris Jericho. And though Kenny can play the villain very well, I would never suggest that Chris Jericho hasn’t earned his place. He’s one of the best to ever do it. Also, Kenny doesn’t do a lot of talking. Most of that is Cody’s extensive interview segments and MJF’s long but oh-so-satisfying heel promos. So where does that leave Kenny?
I love seeing these two guys go at it, but I feel like they can do it without the props
He’s an other. Kenny is part of “Everyone Else”. The former PWI #1 Wrestler in the world, the former G1 Climax winner, the former IWGP Heavyweight, U.S. and Intercontinental Champion, the former leader of Bullet Club and The Elite, is not much more than a very talented side show.
I know that a lot of people that read this are huge AEW fans that will try to disparage every word I’ve written here. They’ll say Kenny was always goofy, even going back to ROH and pre-Bullet Club. They’ll say it makes sense for Kenny to be a tag team wrestler because of his history with the Golden Lovers. They’ll say he’s working in the front office now and has a lot on his plate, or New Japan screwed him by taking the title off of him and putting it on Tanahashi, or that his matches against Pac and Moxley are legendary. They’ll say that Cody DESERVES to the centerpiece of AEW because he left WWE and made himself into a legend (like he’s the only person on God’s Green Earth that ever left WWE and found another job. I already wrote an article on that and I’m still getting hate mail. Who knew that many people hated Gail Kim?).
I’m not gonna argue the “Wednesday Night Wars,” or WWE vs. AEW, or the God-Like Aura of Cody Rhodes. This is what I’m gonna say:
Wrestle Kingdom 11 Main Event
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega
G1 Climax 27
Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega
Dominion in Osaka 6-9
IWGP Heavyweight Championship (2 out of 3 falls)
Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega
Watch those matches. Watch them with an open mind. You may not like the style and you may not like Japanese presentation, but you cannot walk away from those matches without recognizing that you saw something special. In those matches, you will not see anything “All Elite”. You will not see the antics of a mid-carder trying to make his mark or going through the motions of a weekly show.
This is The Cleaner. Kenny Omega. And I wonder if I’ll ever see him again.
Goodbye. And… Goodnight.