Meet AEW's Kenny Omega: The World's Greatest Living Wrestling Artist

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 28, 2020

Photo courtesy of AEW

If you're looking for a glimpse of Kenny Omega's greatness, there's no better place to start than his tope, a dive from the ring to the outside many wrestlers do.

No one does it quite like Omega.

Omega seems to hang in the air, his body almost pressing pause, as if to allow you an extra moment to enjoy this thrilling display of human athletic potential. You're supposed to suspend disbelief when you watch professional wrestling, but is that meant to include your belief in the law of gravity?

Does he hang in the air one beat? Two beats? Four?

Eventually, he crashes into his opponent, graceful sublimity replaced by a jarring physicality. The combination of those two things define modern wrestling and are, if not unique to Omega, perhaps best expressed by his particular style.

"He has such a unique style that there's nothing in wrestling I can really compare it to," former Omega opponent and partner Cody Rhodes says. "Maybe a football analogy is best. He's like a mobile quarterback in a world of passers. We are used to passing quarterbacks who throw it in the pocket. Kenny is in wrestling what the running quarterback has become to the NFL. He's that different. 

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"He just looks at wrestling in a vastly different way. He's very open. He's very passionate. He's very committed. He's a very special wrestler. There aren't any other wrestlers that I can compare him to."

Omega is widely considered the best professional wrestler of his era, if not of all time. His matches are so legendary that the sport's leading critic, the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer, once gave one of his bouts seven stars. That's a meaningless factoid until you consider his scale typically only goes as high as five. 

Omega broke that system, and he's far from done. His goal? Nothing less than a complete reinvention of the sport itself, one he believes has been defined for far too long exclusively in terms of what has come before, the eyes of the industry forever on the past rather than daring to look into the future. His influences come from the worlds he loves: anime, video games and cinema. 

"A lot of wrestlers are wrestling fans at heart," Omega says in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "I'm not necessarily a fan [of wrestling] anymore. I'm a fan of TV dramas. I'm a fan of video games, and I'm a fan of movies. I like the way that those forms of media are laid out to attract the fan. That's my study material for how I put together a storyline or a match. 

"Yes, I'm athletic and I can do cool moves and I try to be original with the way I perform them, but I feel the way that I put things together is different from the average wrestler because the average wrestler is just that: He's just a wrestler. He's a wrestler who wants to be a wrestler. I am wrestling as a job but trying to tell human stories to pull at your heartstrings."

Stepping boldly away from the status quo can make you an icon. It also makes you plenty of enemies. As praise has been heaped onto Omega, his critics have ramped up their own rhetoric, as well, in an attempt to match it. 

"It's funny, Kenny gets grouped in with new-school wrestlers all the time, like what he's doing is so different from the old school," Rhodes says. "But I can say his commitment to the details is one of the most old-school things in all of wrestling right now. If you look at the best and the greatest of all time, all the GOATs are detail people, and he is incredibly detail-oriented."

The things his fans love about Kenny, the extravagant flourishes, romanticism and behind-the-scenes silliness that make him intoxicating for many first discovering pro wrestling, are anathema to people who want to impose a sense of self-important and perpetual seriousness to the sport.

This story likely won't change that. The two sides are firmly entrenched, and Omega is far too willing to engage in artistic criticism of his own for an accord to ever be reached. He has his own vision for what wrestling can be—one that explicitly rejects the comfortable techniques and methods of yesteryear.

"A lot of wrestling historians and purists will go to bat and say that [Ric] Flair was the greatest of all time because he was so successful for a period of years," Omega says. "The same goes for [Kazuchika] Okada, who's almost the modern-day Ric Flair. They have a very patterned main event style, but it's very successful. They bring out the best in almost every opponent.

Flair, a champion in the 1980s and '90s, is widely considered one of the best wrestlers ever.
Flair, a champion in the 1980s and '90s, is widely considered one of the best wrestlers ever.Charles Sykes/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I would watch some of the main event performances, and I would say, 'Well, this is a great match. Wow.' You don't realize until after you've seen it 10 times or 12 times, this is actually just a formula they've kind of copy-and-pasted. ... They see that the reaction is the same every time, so the wrestler says, 'Oh, OK, this is a formula that works, and regardless of how many times they've seen it, it still works.'   

"I think that's why the Kenny Omega boom started. There's no Kenny Omega copy-and-paste formula. It's all different. It's difficult and very mentally draining, and because I do that, maybe it makes me not a true wrestler's wrestler. What I am trying to do is not attract the wrestler's wrestling fan; I'm trying to open up the world to what wrestling can be and show there is no limitation to what wrestling can be.

"I went way outside that box. I wasn't using the age-old wrestler formula where if you do this, it's gonna get a reaction, so you do this set list of things at this timing and know it's definitely gonna work. I try to make everything unique, almost anti-wrestling in a way but still existing within the four sides of a wrestling ring."  


Beginning a discussion of wrestling artistry by dismissing two of the most sacred figures is a bold move. But if anyone has the bona fides to back it up, it's Omega. 

He's always looked to forge his own path, even when the way ahead looked impossible to navigate. This is a man who walked away from a WWE developmental contract, uncomfortable with both the rigid insistence that wrestling could only be performed one way and the casual abuse that seemed a harbinger of unhappiness. 

Sometimes setting out to find your place in this world can be lonely. It's this crushing feeling that leads many to give up entirely, the future seemingly so bleak, the very idea of making it in wrestling without the corporate support of WWE so daunting it hardly seems worth the effort. 

But before Omega gave in to the darkness, he found a beacon, a partner willing to take the journey with him.

Kota Ibushi was another preternaturally gifted wrestling prodigy unafraid, well, of seemingly anything. Together, the two men wrote the greatest love story in the history of professional wrestling and, with a group of like-minded peers, changed the way wrestling looked and felt. Their goal was to spread wrestling beyond the existing fanbase, to create stories and moments that could lure outsiders into their strange world.

"I felt if I could innovate my own style, that maybe I could reach a new fanbase and even expand the pro wrestling horizon," Omega says. "I started small, and I started kind of testing the waters at DDT. We had crowds of 200 or 250. But by the time I had really taken off, DDT sold out Budokan [one of the biggest venues for wrestling in Tokyo]. 

"I didn't really know what I was doing aside from doing things I thought would be entertaining to my friends and family. But it was working. I had comrades and allies that shared the same goals as me. Ibushi and Michael Nakazawa, among others. 

"There was a small group of us, and as I traveled the world, I would meet these people, and they would have the same ideas, the same visions, the same goals, just wanting something more. El Generico [WWE's Sami Zayn], The Young Bucks and, eventually, Cody came around. Next thing you know, we had this alternative professional wrestling brand. None of our ideas were exactly alike but could exist in the same world together and provide this alternative."


In Japan, foreign wrestlers are called gaijin. Traditionally, their role is simple: They are the foil for the native-born stars, there to menace and challenge, obstacles to be overcome. For DDT, Omega must have felt like a godsend. Finally, there was a foreign rival capable of matching Ibushi step for step—no small challenge when you consider his almost impossible brilliance.

But the two formed an immediate bond, one transcending language, culture and race. Rather than becoming rivals, they became partners, a tag team par excellence. Originally called the Golden Brothers, they insisted on a change, becoming the Golden Lovers instead.

The two men seemed to move as one entity, their bodies and minds synchronized to a level almost scary to behold. They didn't just form a tag team; they became partners in a way you rarely see in the wrestling space, their devotion to both their art and each other inspiring scores of fans who watched the two shift effortlessly between broad comedy and breathtakingly beautiful technical wrestling. 

"My philosophy has always been that pro wrestling can be anything," Omega says. "I might have been the most loosey-goosey guy with it because you've seen me do crazy things like wrestle an inanimate object or wrestle a child. But even when I do things like that, I go about in the most serious of ways. I don't just do it to do it. I put a lot of time and effort into the story and make it make sense for the live house or the people who may watch it online or on TV. A lot of these matches are matches I am proud of to this day and I believe have opened up professional wrestling to a brand-new audience who continue to be fans."

Ultimately, it was an act too big for DDT to contain. These two men belonged to the wider world, and Omega eventually followed Ibushi to New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Japan's version of the corporate wrestling monolith.

There the two seemingly parted ways, Ibushi pursuing what felt like inevitable singles success and Omega suddenly looking for a way to shine without the benefit of Ibushi's spillover light. The Golden Lovers were put on a shelf like an old toy no one wanted to play with anymore. 

Except—and here is the truly remarkable part—the two men refused to let it die. Along with a rabid fanbase, the Golden Lovers angle continued, relegated to the background but never quite forgotten.

By 2015, Ibushi had transformed from a waifish junior heavyweight to a bona fide challenger for AJ Styles' IWGP heavyweight title. The problem? Omega, reinvented as the dastardly Cleaner, was Styles' Bullet Club understudy, one of a gang of foreign heels who accompanied him to the ring.

What followed was an emotional tour de force as Omega, torn between career aspirations and his very personal bond with Ibushi, was frozen in place on the ring apron, costing his friend the championship that had been his childhood dream. 

"New Japan takes kayfabe very seriously, so you need to be separated at all times," Omega says. "There's no changing in the same locker rooms. You can warm up around the ring, but you're expected to be on opposite sides of the ring if you're a heel or a babyface.

"This was the closest, physically, I had been to Ibushi in a wrestling environment for the longest time. For it to be in this huge title match with AJ Styles, and there was going to be this moment where what I did impacted the match, it was emotional for both of us.

"I can't take all of the credit. Actually, AJ was a huge driving force. He went to the office and said, 'Please, Gedo [the head of New Japan's creative team], let Kenny be the only guy that comes out. I know Kenny has this thing that he wants to do, so let Kenny have this moment.'

"If there were other Bullet Club guys there, it may get lost in the shuffle. He wanted it just to be me, and I think it helped magnify the impact of what happened in the ring and the real emotions."


A few months later, Ibushi was gone. Just as importantly, so was Styles, with Omega filling his slot as the promotion's lead gaijin. Normally, this is where the saga of the Golden Lovers would end. But the two men, in word and deed, refused to let it die. 

"We kept the story alive by telling each other's stories through interviews and media. But it wasn't for the sake of that story," Omega says. "We just wanted each other to know ... we wanted the fans to know about this tag team they had grown to care about, the Golden Lovers. I guess without even seeing the long term, we just wanted people to know, yeah, we're doing OK, and we still remember the good ol' days of when we used to team. 

"It meant everything to me. I believe one thing that was missing from professional wrestling was the real-life element. Now people sort of fakely and falsely tie in these real-life stories. Hey, this guy used to be a car mechanic back in the day, so let's run a one-month story about how his car shop shut down and this guy is gonna make fun of it and they feud for a while. The story that Ibushi and I had was a decade-long journey. It was real, and it spanned over countries and promotions and hardships and trials and tribulations, and there's so much drama that existed not within the story but in real life." 

Omega all but repped Ibushi on his body, explicitly making sartorial choices that evoked the specter of his departed friend, and the two would send pointed messages to each other in the ring or through the press. The Golden Lovers lived on—all while never being spotted together in public. 

"Sometimes I wondered, how can he be so disciplined and keep this thing going? Something so nuanced and detailed," Matt Jackson of The Young Bucks says. "Many times I thought to myself, 'Is this the story, or is this just real life?'

"Because that's when you know you have something good going: when you even fool the boys into believing. And that's what he did. And to this day, there's so many moving parts and shades of gray and things that I'm not very clear on. What was real and what was pretend? That's the art of it. He's truly a great storyteller."

Omega rose to the top of New Japan, helping launch the promotion to considerable prominence around the globe on the strength of his in-ring performances. This included a rivalry with Okada that defined wrestling, at least artistically, in the 2010s.

But as The Cleaner, he could never quite reach his true potential and conquer the dominant champion. That required him to be at his peak—not just physically, but emotionally and mentally.

It required a reunion with Ibushi.

At his lowest point, worn down by the demands and politics of wrestling, Omega sought solace in the familiar. After years of the world pushing them around, the two pushed back. Kenny saved Kota, and Kota saved Kenny, the emotion building to a bursting point at which they finally embraced. Ibushi was by his side when he took home the title in 2018 by beating Okada in their final, legendary, seven-star classic, taking the title belt from the referee and putting it around Kenny's waist himself.

"My strong suit, I think, is long-term storytelling," Omega says. "I'm a very neurotic individual, and I'm a stickler for details. So I believed, given an opportunity and given time, I could tell stories people really haven't seen in professional wrestling."

The tale that began with two men looking for a place to belong, ended (for now) with them together in the ring in Tokyo as the snow fell. They had found it wasn't a place they were searching for at all.

It was each other.


Stepping into the ring with Kenny Omega isn't easy.

First, there's the physical challenge of a match with one of the sport's master craftsmen. Though age and injury have slowed down what was once a breathtaking pace, working with Omega still requires a resiliency few wrestlers are prepared for until they get in the ring and actually do it. 

More than that, however, is the pressure of knowing the world is watching, and its judgment awaits.

Omega's greatness has reached such a level that in 2019, he had multiple Match of the Year candidates in different promotions around the globe and helped launch a new wrestling organization on TNT—and he was somehow labeled a disappointment. Expectations are impossibly high, something that bleeds down to the opponent on the other side of the ring.

"He's one of the best in the world for a reason. The detail he puts into his matches are probably the best in the business, and I have nothing but respect for him. I feel like the boys feel the same," Nick Jackson from The Young Bucks says. "I think some wrestlers might be intimidated by him because he has such a high standard and such a legacy of having these high-caliber matches. Some people are actually quite nervous to get in the ring with him." 

Like his long-term storytelling, Omega's ring work pushes wrestling to artistic levels few have ever reached before. The attention to detail alone is staggering, each match the product of much self-scrutiny and plenty of creative discussions.

The Bucks got a taste of the Kenny Omega experience when there was a schism within the Bullet Club and they ended up battling a reunited Golden Lovers for tag team supremacy. Like he had with Ibushi, Kenny wanted art to imitate life, something that was a struggle for the team because they and Omega had become fast friends. 

The mini-feud culminated in California with a match the Bucks call one of the best of their career.

"We put so much time and effort and focus into it, and we had to spend so much time apart from Kenny because we really, truly wanted this to have an impact," Matt says. "We wanted people to believe. So we stopped hanging out with him and coming out to the ring with him for his big matches.

"A lot of it felt very real because we were at this crossroads and our friendship was over in the storyline. And we had to kind of mimic that in real life. It was really hard and a strain on our relationship with Kenny, to be honest. The only time we spoke was when we were on the phone together.

"It kind of had a big impact on my life. When we finally did the match—and it was a very brutal, physical match—we all got to the back and collapsed. We just lay down on the floor."

In the ring, the physical and emotional meld as he weaves the story he's telling outside the ring into the fabric of the match. Kenny Omega isn't a wrestler having matches. He's pouring his soul into everything he does, wrestling's version of a method actor who doesn't know how not to bring his real life into his work.

"He likes to bring in not just callbacks from past matches, but he likes to bring in pieces of his life," Cody says. "And that's what makes this work. When you bring in the reality, suspension of disbelief is a unique thing. Kenny Omega is not playing the character of Kenny Omega. Kenny Omega is the same way across the hall from me right now, drinking coffee, as he is in the ring. That is Kenny Omega you see there."

The matches are filled with callbacks, whether it's using the finishing maneuvers of vanquished foes or relying on Ibushi's moves whenever things look particularly dire, perhaps longing for a safe space in the midst of chaos. It can be overwhelming to watch, especially if you're searching for deeper meaning with every gesture and look.

It's created two distinct Omega fandoms: a larger group made up of those who enjoy him on a surface level as a generational-level talent and incredibly athletic performer, and those on the long road with him through tragedy, redemption and triumph.

"Too much thought goes into it sometimes," Omega admits. "That's the thing. It's a double-edged sword because sometimes when you think too much into it, it will take someone who is very clever or who has really followed everything from like day one to go online and say, 'By the way, that's what this meant.' And then everyone is like, 'Oh, I get it.'

"Sometimes that can actually work against you. You do want things to be in broad strokes sometimes, especially with AEW because we are a new company and we're starting fresh and you want everyone to understand every little thing and you want to make it easy to understand for all the new fans.

"For better or worse, I have these callbacks. That's just who I am. Even if they don't understand the actual meaning behind it, they saw a cool move. In its rawest form, they saw a cool move, and cool moves are fun to watch."


To many, it was all but inevitable that Omega would emerge as AEW's first world champion. Instead, he's taken a supporting role as the company hitches its wagon to former WWE stars Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley. Of course, a supporting role for a wrestler of Omega's caliber includes multiple Match of the Year candidates and a tag team championship.

That championship reign has morphed into trademark Omega, as he has found himself between partner Adam Page and his long-time allies, The Young Bucks. If it feels familiar, it probably should.

"[The battle with the Golden Lovers] was one reason why we've built this feud with Kenny and Page," Nick Jackson says. "We wanted to try to do a similar story again, but this time on national television." 

Things got tense on Dynamite Wednesday as the two teams aired their grievances on TNT (the teams meet Saturday at AEW Revolution, available on pay-per-view at B/R Live). Once again, as only he can, Omega has helped create one of the most compelling angles in all of wrestling—all by putting relatable emotions at the forefront.

"I'm loving that Hangman is showing this new personality and that we've found something for him that he feels at home with and that the fans enjoy and love," he says. "It's something that people can relate to, as well. I mean, I was that guy in high school. I never drank alcohol. I never did drugs. But I was a sports guy, and a lot of the dudes I played with did drink a lot or they did recreational drugs.

"I would have to be the guy to kind of hold things together, be like, 'Hey man, are you OK?' or 'Let me take you home.' You did have the annoying drunk or the guy who got a little rude when he'd had too much to drink. That person can be lovable and still be a great person.  

"Without spoiling anything, sometimes you have to look deeper than where the spotlight's shining brightest at the moment. Because maybe the true story will reveal itself inside the story you think you're watching. We have big plans. We are trying to tell stories people can relate to."

         

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. AEW Dynamite airs weekly on TNT, a corporate partner of Bleacher Report.