Back in December, WWE Superstar Roman Reigns went on WWE Network's Straight to the Source with Corey Graves and boldly named himself "the best performer in-ring in the world right now." The boast set off a monsoon of internet debate.
Reigns didn't even have to say the name for wrestling fans to know who the comment was aimed at.
Kenny Omega knew who it was aimed at too.
Asked to respond to Reigns in a recent phone interview, you could almost hear a smile stretching across the face of the 34-year-old New Japan Pro-Wrestling U.S. Champion with every word he spoke.
"I don't know if Roman was put up to saying a comment like that from a social media team or if it was something that he consciously thought of himself," Omega told Bleacher Report. "But I thought it was pretty smart of him to do—to say—that, because it became instantaneously a topic that people were talking about.
"And just because it sounds so ridiculous. You know what I mean?"
A 6'0", curly-haired, wild-eyed Canadian ex-pat who leads an infamous NJPW faction called Bullet Club, Omega treats wrestling like hyperactively violent performance art, combining athleticism with ingenuity—hard-hitting strikes with high-wire acrobatics. The result over the past year has been spectacular matches that have created a buzz impossible for any fan of professional wrestling—even the staunchest WWE enthusiast—to ignore. It's been arguably one of the greatest years from a single performer in pro wrestling history.
Legendary pro wrestling scribe Dave Meltzer broke his famous star-ratings match-grading scale not once, not twice, not three times, but four times for Omega in 2017, with a scintillating trilogy of matches against NJPW champion Kazuchika Okada (rating 6, 6.25 and 6 stars, respectively) and a spectacular match with Tetsuya Naito that landed a 5.75.
And unless Reigns has been purposefully ignoring the industry he claims to be king of, he was keenly aware of all this.
Omega continued responding to Reigns' comment in his slow, measured voice—sounding like he was setting up Reigns for his lauded One-Winged Angel finisher: "By no means do I actually think he believes in those words. There's no possible way."
Boom. That simple. Nobody kicks out of a verbal One-Winged Angel.
Omega is the greatest show in wrestling right now, and everyone—WWE and Reigns included—knows it. If Meltzer's 2017 ratings and the fan response to Reigns' claim weren't proof enough, Omega's first fight of 2018 has cemented the case—and brought a whole new level of awareness to it.
WWE has reigned supreme in wrestling for decades now, but some of the thunder was stolen from the House that McMahon built when sure-shot Hall of Famer Chris Jericho, who hasn't wrestled outside of WWE for 18 years, appeared on screen at a NJPW show in November to challenge Omega to a match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 (the company's equivalent of WrestleMania).
The subsequent announcement that the two would fight—in a match on Jan. 4 that came to be known as Alpha vs. Omega—reverberated throughout the industry and quickly became the most talked about pro wrestling match in the world.
"I think Kenny Omega is tremendous. He's one of the best performers in the world," Jericho told me when asked about Omega before Wrestle Kingdom 12 took place. "The biggest match in pro wrestling today, anywhere in the world, is Alpha vs. Omega.
"I love that we created something very special."
Alpha vs. Omega was a match that was born out of an innocent meeting last year, when Jericho found out that he and Omega were both from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Omega appeared on Jericho's Talk Is Jericho podcast in the midst of Omega's torrid string of matches, and the two kept in touch. After Jericho finished his latest stint with WWE in April, his longtime friend Don Callis, an English commentator for NPJW, made a cheeky suggestion that nobody expected to go as far as it did.
"Callis had joked with Jericho about saying like, 'Hey, what if the next time you decide to reinvent yourself, it's not with WWE—it's with coming to New Japan and challenging Kenny? Ha ha ha.' And Chris never laughed at the joke," Omega said. "And I guess Don sort of picked up that Chris seemed more intrigued rather than entertained by the thought. He kinda went above Chris' head, and he messaged me directly. And he had said, 'Hey Kenny: what-if scenario. What if you could wrestle Chris Jericho at the Tokyo Dome?'"
Omega, of course, was enamored with the opportunity to step into the ring with a living legend. What better way to cap a remarkable stretch of matches over a 12-month period than against Chris Jericho at the same arena where he'd put on the 6-star match with Kazuchika Okada? But there was one major hurdle: Wasn't Jericho under contract with WWE?
This wouldn't be the first time that Omega attempted to have a match with someone from WWE. Last year, he broached the idea that he could join tag team partners the Young Bucks to form a trio known as The Elite and face WWE's white-hot team of The New Day.
"We really wanted to do something with a New Day, who was—at that time—they were sort of the hottest trio in all professional wrestling," Omega said. "And not only that, we were friends with the guys. So we had really thought it'd be cool to go up and above everyone's heads and make the appeal that we wanted to make this match happen."
The match wouldn't come to fruition, as The New Day are under contract with WWE and Vince McMahon hasn't shown interest in working with the competition. In general, the idea of a huge cross-promotional match was initially met with pessimism.
"I'd sort of been discouraged of ever trying to create a cross promotional match," Omega said. "The New Day angle fell flat on its face. I just sort of thought that from here on in, trying to even challenge WWE guys, if there was no payoff, there's no reason for it. It would've been dumb. So I never thought the Chris Jericho thing would actually become anything."
But much to Omega's—and the brass at NPJW's—surprise, Jericho wasn't under contract and was interested in facing Omega. It took several months, but the match came together and was formally announced in November.
Still, that would have meant little in the end if the match itself hadn't come together and delivered as it did.
After the announcement, it became one of the most talked-about matches in wrestling outside of WWE since perhaps WCW's Starrcade 1997 showdown between Sting and the NWO's Hulk Hogan. And while Hogan-Sting ended up being an underwhelming debacle that marked the beginning of the end for Ted Turner's pro wrestling company, Jericho vs. Omega exceeded expectations and helped entrench New Japan Pro Wrestling as a formidable adversary to McMahon's WWE.
Speaking on Wrestling Observer Radio (h/t WhatCulture.com), Meltzer noted New Japan Pro Wrestling's on-demand streaming service, NJPW World, saw over a 35 percent increase in subscriptions in the 24-hour window before and after Wrestle Kingdom 12 took place. Much of that can be attributed directly to Omega and Jericho.
The match itself, a no-disqualification bout, was brilliantly paced, wildly entertaining and full of everything you could possibly want in a pro wrestling match. Despite his advanced age of 47, Jericho put on one of the best matches of his career, with his heel tendencies turned up to full volume, while Omega proved to a larger audience why he has been recognized as the best professional wrestler on the planet, in or out of WWE.
Although there was a clash of styles—Omega is known for a ridiculously high work rate, while Jericho is more of the slow-building storyteller—the 35-minute match hit all of the right marks.
"That was the interesting part of this match," Omega said. "You have me on one side, who's been really trying to push the envelope creatively on how people view professional wrestling and then using New Japan TV as my outlet. And [on the other], Chris, who's always up for reinventing himself and pushing the envelope in his own way, kind of sought me out.
"And together now we've created this sort of real cool, sort of surreal interaction between two people that you never thought would or could interact in a professional wrestling ring."
The match ended in a fashion guaranteed to further establish Omega as the best wrestler in the world: with Omega pinning Jericho for a three-count after a One-Winged Angel onto a steel chair. With a wider audience to witness this marvelous spectacle on NJPW World and a shade under 35,000 rabid fans crammed into the Tokyo Dome, Omega made his statement loud and clear—with actions instead of his words: He is the premiere performer in the wonderful world of professional wrestling.
"I don't have to feel like I have to speak up about it," Omega said, going back to Reigns' comments. "It is what it is, and I understand that it's a fun thing for fans to generate interest in the product. I take absolutely zero offense in him saying it.
"Especially since it's quite clear that the fact of the matter is much, much different."