Sometime soon, as Jan. 4 winds down in Tokyo, and mere hours after it starts in Manitoba, Kenny Omega will face off against Kazuchika Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11. It caps off a career year for Omega, the Winnipeg-born grappler who has spent most of the last eight years wrestling primarily in Japan, and the last two almost exclusively for New Japan.
A year ago, at Wrestle Kingdom 10, he lost the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title to KUSHIDA. Tonight he could very well win the IWGP Heavyweight title from the current ace of New Japan. In between, Omega vaulted up the card as quickly as any wrestler in recent memory, replacing AJ Styles as the leader of the Bullet Club the day after losing to KUSHIDA, beating Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the IWGP Intercontinental title, and becoming the first westerner to ever win the annual G1 Climax tournament. That victory earned Omega the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight title at New Japan’s biggest show of the year, a momentous career accomplishment that the man himself couldn’t properly revisit when Paste caught up with him at the Tokyo Game Show back in September.
“I don’t know how [winning the G1] feels, to be honest. It still hasn’t hit home,” Omega told Paste on the Tokyo Game Show floor at the Makuhari Messe convention center. “I know it was a history making moment. I understand that now. I’ll usually always watch back all my matches right away. I want to study them, what I liked, what I hated. What I can improve on. I have yet to watch any of that stuff back, because it was a surreal tournament and a surreal moment for me to do what I did in one month’s time.”
The G1 is probably the most grueling event in wrestling. The round robin tournament, featuring anywhere from 10 to 20 men, is held during the summer every year, and has earned a reputation for some of the hardest-hitting, most dramatic and technically proficient matches of the year. The best wrestlers in New Japan work as hard as they can for weeks on end, and the winner earns the right to challenge for the company’s top singles belt in the Tokyo Dome every Jan. 4.
2016’s brutal tournament once again resulted in some of the absolute best matches of the year. And when it was done, Omega perched victorious on the shoulders of his Bullet Club brethren, waving their own black and white banner in the middle of the ring instead of the traditional G1 flag.
Despite winning, that brutality prevented Omega from his usual routine of watching his own matches as quickly as possible. “We did like 21 days, matches in a row, not all were singles. It’s all just a blur,” he said in September. “I really went into G1 mode, where my life, everything, all my thought and energy went into wrestling. As satisfying as it was at the end of the day to be the winner and to have a lot of work that I’m very proud of, I’m almost afraid to go back and open that box and revisit the hardships of having to do that again. I’m just sort of leaving that where it was, and continuing with the momentum that I’ve earned myself.”
The speed of that momentum seemed to surprise even Omega himself. “I had a check box for some of the goals that I’ve had, and I’ve done almost everything that I wanted to do with New Japan, and at an alarming rate,” he said. “I had this five year plan for where I wanted to be and I’m already seeing more than that after two years.”
Despite the cocky character he plays in the ring, Omega recognizes that he didn’t reach these heights alone, and gladly gives thanks when needed. “I have the company to thank for that,” he said. “They believed in me when they needed someone to carry the product. I have my friends, the Young Bucks, who have always believed in me when a lot of people didn’t. And I guess it’s believing in yourself, as cheesy as that might sound. When you do all those things and you work hard on top of it, it really accelerates your growth as a human being, or in whatever it is you’re doing in life.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire G1 Climax in 2016 was when Omega springboarded off the top rope outside of the ring, over the guardrails, and into the crowd, where his opponent Tetsuya Naito stood amid rows of chairs, surrounded by the audience. It’s the kind of unbelievable spot that fans remember forever, and that can help create or solidify a wrestler’s legend. It’s also incredibly dangerous. A month after that August match, which was perhaps the best match in all of 2016, Omega still wasn’t quite sure why he did it.
“A million things go through your head,” when you’re about to do something as risky as that, Omega said. “One, I’d never done that. I never would do that normally. I don’t know what I was thinking in that moment in time. I knew it was going to hurt. I knew there was a very good chance that I could’ve landed on the guardrail. For the G1 tournament, the distance is actually longer to that outside that it would be, to give a little more space on the floor. Just looking at it, looking at this immense distance that one must travel after springboarding to the top rope, keeping your balance, being able to turn and then hit your target, in a mess of table, chairs and people…what it is that goes through a man’s mind to make him think that’s a good idea or that he should do that, I really don’t know. And that’s part of the reason why I don’t go back and watch the footage! I’ve seen the GIF. I’ve seen the GIF, so I know it’s me. I know I did it. I don’t know if I want to go back to that place again. That’s the Big Match Kenny, the final form Kenny Omega.”
That GIF maybe didn’t circulate quite as widely as the highlights of Will Ospreay and Ricochet’s New Japan match in May, but for wrestling fans it’s one of the iconic moments of 2016. It wasn’t just a high spot for the sake of a high spot, though—it made sense in the larger picture of that match, furthering the story of New Japan’s two biggest breakouts of 2016 doing absolutely whatever it took to beat the other. It was like a great guitar solo in a brilliantly written song—flashy and unforgettable, but not better or more important than what came before or after it in the match.
When asked, Omega immediately confirmed that wrestlers now try to include high spots and other risky moves specifically in the hopes of them becoming a viral GIF. It’s the latest permutation of the long-running debate about high spots in wrestling, and it’s a trend that Omega doesn’t appreciate. “If I do something that makes a GIF, that’s great,” he said. “I’m happy for it. But I’m more about the narrative from start to finish and the energy that one puts into a match from start to finish. I put a lot more emphasis on the actions in-between moves. A lot of guys now lack the drive to string something together that makes sense from start to finish. They’re not putting the time in the gym so that they have the energy to make it believable from start to finish. So what they do is they put all their energy into the moves they know may become GIFs. That’s it. So do I think that that is the case? One thousand percent yes! And it sucks that the ‘big leagues,’ so to speak, are more or less facilitating that style of wrestling as well.”
Of course it’s a two-way street. Wrestlers wouldn’t be shooting for those GIF moments if wrestling fans didn’t eat them up. “I think that’s part of the reason why the ‘Internet Wrestling Community,’ quote-unquote, have a lot more say than they should as to what defines pro wrestling,” Omega pointed out. “I’ve seen matches that are absolutely garbage but the internet wrestling community will say they were great because they saw a couple of GIFs that look fantastic, or they watch the whole match, and there are a couple of moves that make great GIFs. I don’t think that makes a great match whatsoever.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Omega’s main event at Wrestle Kingdom 11 has a breathtaking moment (or two) that immediately gets turned into a popular wrestling GIF. What would be shocking is if the rest of the match with Okada isn’t laid out well and performed pristinely—if it doesn’t tell a story as well as two men can tell a story in a ring in 2017. Omega and Okada are two of the best wrestlers in the world, and both have never failed to deliver a classic on a stage as big as Wrestle Kingdom’s. They’ve proven they can handle that pressure; hopefully the fans can handle their own expectations.
Whether he wins tonight or not, Kenny Omega has risen to the top of New Japan. He’s a made man, a verified main eventer, a true superstar in the second biggest wrestling promotion in the world. Naturally his fans might wonder what comes next, especially with WWE signing away two of New Japan’s biggest stars and its biggest tag team after last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. In September, only a month after the savage march of the G1, Omega sounded like he was at a crossroads. After emphasizing how quickly he’s accomplished almost all of his goals in New Japan, he admitted, “I’m not sure what I should do with myself now. Should I make new goals? Or is there somewhere else I should be? I don’t know. Right now I’m just going day by day. My body’s really beat up. I’m mentally kind of fried. But I want to keep burning the candle on both ends to end this year strong and make it one of the strongest of my professional career.”
He clearly accomplished that goal in 2016. After Wrestle Kingdom 11, we’ll have a clearer idea of what he might achieve in 2017.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.