A soap opera for men, ballet for blokes; whatever you want to call it, pro wrestling is unique as a storytelling medium. It blends theatrical performance, sport and narrative in a way that no other form of entertainment manages, telling ongoing, sometimes multi-year stories involving multiple characters across a number of weekly shows.
The year is drawing to a close and as it winds up I want to revisit and reflect on the five in ring-stories that I feel defined pro wrestling in 2018. It was a roller coaster year of some great highs and low lows but I have chosen to focus on the five wrestling stories that I believe define the year in a positive light.
I’ll be posting a new part up each Monday throughout December, in case you missed part 1 you can check it out here: Becky Lynch, The Man Comes Around. Today we’ll be taking a look outside the WWE bubble at the year of New Japan superstar and indy darling, Kenny Omega.
2018 was the greatest year of Kenny Omega’s career but it was also the hardest. It was the year he would experience the most love from those closest to him and the most heartbreak. A year where the most important relationships in his life fell apart, only to come back together stronger than ever before. A year he would enter as The Cleaner and exit the as The Best Bout Machine and IWGP Champion.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing their’s and blaming it on you.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
It really is a miracle anything at all came out of 2018 for Omega given how it started. Just five days into the year at New Years Dash, less than twenty four hours after the fight of his life against a bitter, burnt out Chris Jericho, Omega was immediately fighting wars on multiple fronts. On the one night he would be simultaneously assaulted by NJPW upstart ‘Switchblade’ Jay White and awoken to the renewed threat of The American Nightmare Cody Rhodes to his Bullet Club leadership.
Fighting wars on multiple fronts was a theme that would run throughout almost the entire year for Omega. While preparing for some of the most important matches of his career he would be constantly distracted and tormented by people he would normally consider his closest allies.
At the centre of it all was the Machiavellian influence of Cody Rhodes, a man who walked away from the WWE in 2016 with big ambitions to move beyond the midcard purgatory he had become stuck in. Years and years of stifled creative ambition forged a man determined to leave a mark on the wrestling world that befits the legacy of his surname at any cost. Cody did not leave the guaranteed paydays of the WWE to play second fiddle to anyone and square in his sights for most of 2018 would be Omega and his leadership of the most notorious wrestling stable in the world The Bullet Club.
While obviously not as physically gifted as Omega, Cody would use his silver tongue to manipulate the likes of The Young Bucks Nick & Matt Jackson, Marty Scurll and ‘Hangman’ Adam Page behind Omega’s back. These whispered sweet nothings would cast Omega’s, reborn relationship with Kota Ibushi and well intentioned scrambling to stabilize the faction in terrible light, all while Cody posed as an alternative leader and paradoxically proclaimed “The Bullet Club is fine.”
This emotional ringer would climax with Omega having to wrestle firstly The Young Bucks at Strong Style Evolved, ‘Hangman’ Page at Wrestling Dontaku and ultimately Cody for the leadership of The Bullet Club at Super Card of Honour in April and again at the G1 Special in San Francisco in July.
The match against The Young Bucks alongside Kota Ibushi would push Omega to his emotional limit as he would be forced to hit his most devastating moves on the men who had cornered him in his biggest ever matches just a year earlier. That they pulled off a match of the year candidate would be cold comfort for all as Nick Jackson rejected Omega’s offer to reconcile after the match had finished, despite also rejecting Cody’s attempt to manipulate him further.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If there was one single segment that would sum up Kenny Omega’s simultaneous fall and rise in 2018 it would have to be the scintillating post match segment on January 28 at New Beginning.
After losing the NJPW US Championship to Jay White, Omega would find himself friendless, having inadvertently pushed away The Young Bucks, stepped on the ambition of ‘Hangman’ Page and found himself on the end of a Cross Rhodes from Cody. However from those depths an old flame would rekindle from ashes Omega long thought dead. The ashes of The Golden Lovers.
The tale of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi, The Golden Lovers, is an entire column series in itself if you wanted to go into details. Two star crossed lovers who together vowed to change the world of pro wrestling. From 2009-2014 the pair were one of the most popular partnerships in Japan, wrestling as a tag team and singles competitors before growing apart and separating in 2014 as their ambitions overtook them.
Both carried a sense of guilt and loss with them after their partnership ended, Omega particularly after he cost Ibushi the IWGP Championship during his early days in The Bullet Club. Both dealt with the separation in different ways too. Omega adopted a ruthless single minded pursuit of greatness and ultimately the IWGP Championship. Ibushi, the free spirit of the two, would instead follow his heart away from Japan in a globetrotting quest that would see him wrestle everywhere from the halls of the WWE to the streets of London. Both hoped to simultaneously escape the shadow of their relationship and show the other man what they were missing out on.
When Ibushi returned to New Japan in 2017 the pair would not even share the same screen let alone reunite. To mask his true conflicted feelings Omega would openly ignore his former partner and after being rebuffed while attempting to console Omega after his 60 minute draw with Kazuchika Okada, Ibushi would seemingly decide to respect Omega’s decision.
At the end of 2017 though the pair would be pushed back into one another’s orbit once again by Omega’s rival Cody, who was looking for a wedge to drive between Omega and the rest of The Bullet Club. However Cody underestimated the strength of the bond of the Golden Lovers and would instead raise them up.
At New Beginning, when Omega was betrayed by Cody and left to fend for himself by the Young Bucks, Ibushi would be the one to dash to the ring, chair in hand, ready to chase off Cody and defend his one time partner. In a spine tingling moment Omega would initially refuse Ibushi’s hand, shedding tears of regret as he crawled away, seemingly not wanting to further entangle himself in relationship strife as everything else was crumbling around him. However after a moment of indecision Ibushi would push Omega again, consoling his fallen partner and the second time his approach would be accepted with Omega embracing Ibushi in turn.
Even though they had been apart, their love never died, their mission to change the world of wrestling remained the same and together they would make each other stronger. In the dust of the Bullet Club’s betrayal, Omega’s rekindled relationship with Ibushi would be exactly the support he needed to get him through the battles to come. Omega needed Ibushi’s laissez faire attitude to get through the months of loss.
In the past the perfectionist in Kenny Omega would have dwelt too much on the minutiae of every failure but with Ibushi’s laissez faire influence he was able to move through the emotional turbulence of those matches with his stablemates and move onto the greatest triumph of his career.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
When the history of pro wrestling for the last decade is written, the four matches between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega may well become the kind of landmarks that the likes of Flair v Steamboat or Austin v Rock have become. Love them or hate them, these four matches are the pinnacle of modern pro wrestling, distilling so much of what the art form has evolved into in the later half of the decade: the pure athleticism, the variety in movesets from both men, the way they work towards breathtaking crescendo and how they build off one another, evolving as each wrestler become more familiar with their opponent and looks for an new advantage to get the edge.
In 2017 Kenny Omega ended up with a loss, a draw and a non-title win against the greatest IWGP Champion perhaps ever, so another championship match beckoned in 2018 but with all the infighting going on around him the question remained, could Omega focus sufficiently to overcome that final hurdle?
When the fourth match came at Dominion, it would prove to be even more epic than the previous three. A 2/3 falls match that would push the physical and mental endurance of both men beyond anything either man had experienced before. As the match began, the defending champion Okada was able to weather Omega’s early storm and go a fall up without even hitting his finisher The Rainmaker.
At that point it would have been easy for Omega to despair. With all the Bullet Club drama still swirling around him was the timing just not right for him to make that final climb to the summit of pro wrestling? He hadn’t been able to pin Okada even once in a championship match before and now he would have to do it twice in a row to win.
However it turned out that instead of breaking him, that adversity had steeled him. The wars within Omega had crystalised what was truly important and with Kota Ibushi in his corner, over an incredible 64 minutes Kenny Omega would find within himself a new level that allowed him to turn the match around, pin one of the greatest IWGP Champions of all time twice in a row and win the belt that cemented his place at the very pinnacle of professional wrestling.
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
In the poem I’ve been quoting, If, by Rudyard Kipling, the poet lists the qualities that is required for his son to truly become a man. The ability to rise above when people question your every thought and deed, the determination to move on from despair and build back up even in unexpected ways and the force of will to summon forth effort from your deepest bowels when you are on the ropes. Kipling lays this out because a boy can become an adult without ever becoming a man, without growing to be someone who can lead and command respect as a man should.
Years ago, Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi made a vow to change the world of professional wrestling. In 2018, along with The Young Bucks and Cody, whom Kenny reconciled with after the Dominion match, Kenny Omega has done just that. However to get to that position he had to summon up within himself all his greatest qualities and overcome the biggest obstacles he had ever faced in his career.
Later in the year Kenny would go on a near undefeated run for most of the G1 Climax and remain unbeaten at a championship level, all the while revelling in that new level of performance he found within himself in his struggles against his friends and in the match against Okada.
So while 2018 was the year of Kenny Omega’s greatest material triumph it was also the year of his greatest personal triumph and perhaps in the long run that will be what truly makes him into a man that can change the world.
Thanks for reading LOP, what did you think of the trials and tribulations of Kenny Omega in 2018? Let me know in the comments below, on twitter @Sir_Samuel or you could even write about it yourself in the LOP Columns Forum where we are always looking for new writers. If you want to register just let me know so I can make sure your registration goes through smoothly (we are currently under siege from Russian bots).
Also make sure you come back next Monday for Part 3 of my series where we look at the fall of one of the WWE’s greatest heroes Johnny Gargano.