January is usually a newsworthy month in pro wrestling, and 2023 is already off to a hot start after New Japan Pro-Wrestling kicked off the year with its biggest event, Wrestle Kingdom.
In the Tokyo Dome, WWE's Sasha Banks debuted as Mercedes Moné, and Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay delivered an instant classic.
It's safe to say the night was a success. The landmark show drew record numbers to NJPW World, the Japanese promotion's streaming service. The positive buzz surrounding Moné also boosted ticket sales for Battle in the Valley on February 18.
That shouldn't surprise anyone because it will host her debut match against Kairi for the IWGP Women's Championship. The event will take place at the Civic Center in San Jose, California.
Acquiring the hottest free agent in the industry and establishing the women's title is NJPW's latest attempt to gain a foothold in the Western market.
Omega's latest win is also a shrewd move. It immediately suggests he will be integral to the partnership with All Elite Wrestling this year.
The Best Bout Machine earned his namesake during his highly regarded stint in NJPW. AEW may have introduced him to most mainstream American fans, but his formative years occurred in Japan.
So much so that the famous gaijin star seemed destined to lead the promotion's expansion into the United States at the end of 2018. After all, Omega speaks fluent Japanese, and he finally dethroned the nation's most dominant champion of the modern era, Kazuchika Okada.
Instead, the Canadian left at the height of his success and gambled on a new venture. On Feb. 7, 2019, he signed a four-year deal with AEW, leaving a significant void for the next crop of foreign stars to fill. This is the crux of his rivalry with Ospreay and the ongoing tension with his predecessor, Jay White.
Ever since, fans have expected Omega to return to his adopted home and become the bridge between the two entities. However, no one expected Jon Moxley to take on that role as an ambassador for AEW. Even more, it took nearly three years for an official partnership to come to fruition.
In the meantime, Omega sustained several injuries that forced him to go on an eight-month hiatus and miss the first cross-promotional show. His absence was one of many obstacles that hindered Forbidden Door. The event prevailed as a highlight of 2022 despite those setbacks, but it landed squarely on a growing list of "what if" scenarios.
It's hard not to imagine what could have been if AEW and NJPW had collaborated sooner. To that end, consider what The Belt Collector could have done for both companies if COVID-19 hadn't shut down travel to Japan.
Nevertheless, this is the perfect time to capitalize on Omega's run with NJPW and his growing star power in the U.S. His IWGP United States title victory at Wrestle Kingdom 17 is likely only the beginning of this long-awaited journey home.
New Challenges and Familiar Foes
Having Omega healthy again opens up so many possibilities, and he already has some surprises up his sleeve.
At New Year Dash, he stunned the crowd as he returned to team up with Okada. The rivals worked surprisingly well together, but there were some subtle hints that they could rekindle their feud.
During his recent interview with Tokyo Sports, the two-time IWGP US champion played down his aspirations to challenge The Rainmaker. Instead, he challenged opponents like Jeff Cobb to come and find him in the U.S. and listed his dream matchups.
"It seems like I want to challenge the IWGP world, but someday I want to try with Shingo Takagi," Omega said. "I didn't have a chance when I was in New Japan, but now Takagi is also on top. I think it's the best timing. El Desperado has been working really hard lately. Then there are other players who aren't heavyweights, but Hiromu Takahashi. I have a feeling that the two junior warriors also picked up."
It's exciting to think about all the fresh matchups and storylines that could he could revisit. AEW didn't mention the current leader of Bullet Club, but one would have to assume they will cross paths soon.
Omega has a long history with White, who he originally attempted to recruit in January 2018. The Switchblade famously rejected the invite and beat him to win the IWGP US title at NJPW New Beginning.
There are undeniable parallels between the formation of AEW and the New Zealand wrestler's power grab and ascension to the top of the card. After all, he took control of Bullet Club and claimed accolades Omega may have achieved if he hadn't left the company in 2019.
King Switch thrived in his absence in Japan and took the spotlight at Forbidden Door to add insult to injury. The anticipation for this rematch has been brewing for at least five years, so expect to see them face each other again sometime this year.
It also seems like the best time to build toward Okada vs. Omega again. Niche fans celebrate their four New Japan contests as one of the greatest rivalries of all time. They're an indelible element of the legacy The Best Bout Machine created and the last missing piece of the puzzle for newer viewers who didn't understand his appeal before AEW.
It may not entice casual fans to tune in, but recreating such a masterpiece in the U.S. would further cement him as a major star in front of the core fanbase. Moreover, it could give NJPW a second chance to use this as a marquee match at a cross-promotional show.
On Apr. 6, 2019, Okada defeated White for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden. If Omega hadn't signed with AEW, the Japanese star probably would have headlined that event with him instead.
Now, the Forbidden Door is open, and Omega has the chance to make up for missed opportunities.