The saying goes in various circles that you’re only as good as your last fight, your last match or more commonly as your last success. Otherwise, you’re cast aside and forgotten. Passed over. The classic phrase, “what have you done for me lately?” springs to mind, doesn’t it?
Like most stories though, life works in phases or compartments and examined at a micro level you don’t really ever see the big picture. The whole story. So when we see someone seemingly fall from a 7-star dynamo (on an arbitrary rating scale, mind you) to a glorified tag team wrestler, the perception is simple and a customary inevitability in all combat athletics arises: an elite athlete peters off and becomes a link in the chain amid the rise of the next generation. The alpha to the omegas.
Rise of the Machine
Most of us likely remember where we were when we heard about the first match between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada at the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom in 2017. Granted, the reason it even became notable unless you’re a fan outright was because Dave Meltzer dusted off the rarely-used 6-star rating on his match rating scale, but suffice to say the match surpasses the hype. Leaving Meltzer’s quaint system aside, that was the match that propelled then 33-year-old Kenny Omega into wrestling’s stratosphere. It also led to Omega and Okada being named PWI’s #1 male wrestler of the year in 2017 and 2018 consecutively.
That first match drew 26,192 people into the Tokyo Dome, a number falling short of some previous attendance markers for the annual NJPW show, but up from the previous edition. That’s relevant year over year, as off the back of this match Omega and Okada competed twice more in 2017 to the tune of splitting the trio with a draw and one win a piece; each match building on the notoriety of their Dome match with more star rating-scale breakers. This is relevant, because by the time Wrestle Kingdom 12 rolled around in January 2018, with the eyes of the wrestling world on the show featuring Okada, Omega and Jericho in the main event and co-main respectively, Wrestle Kingdom drew just under 35,000 paid attendance.
On June 9, 2018, Kenny Omega became the IWGP heavyweight champion in front of 11,832 fans at Dominion, a slight increase over the previous year’s mark in a 16,000-seat venue that when converted for wrestling shows tends to run between 11,000 to 12,000 capacity depending on the main event.
In past years the show only surpassed the 11,000 mark when Okada and AJ Styles fought. In the recent shows surrounding their own two outings, attendance was below 10,000. However, attendance for the 2017 Dominion show increased to 11,756 with Omega and Okada competing to their 60-minute draw. Attendance for the rematch for the title a year later is noted above. This is a critical reference point that defeats the notion Omega is not a draw, which is easy to demonstrate when looking at the venue’s history.
Internet and casual wrestling fans alike routinely debate whether or not he was ever as good as advertised given his AEW run thus far; whether or not he can “go” without Okada as his running mate, or whether he’s outright lost a step. While that knee-jerk response is fair, it’s more accurate to look at his tag team work as the outlier compared to his solo work rather than the criteria to judge his AEW trajectory by. So to argue he isn’t a draw is moot and without substance when it’s clear he does draw attendance.
However, then you might ask, how is that reconciled with the turnout for major NJPW shows that were held in the United States from 2018-2019? It’s difficult to quantify the relation between NJPW turnouts in Japan vs. those in the U.S., but using NJPW World as an example, there are more Japanese users than those outside Japan. It follows that while there’s a strong base inside Japan, outside Japan it’s smaller due to less traditional exposure, especially in the United States. However, there are other points to consider.
NJPW Comes Stateside
When NJPW held their Long Beach cards in 2017 with Cody Rhodes and Okada main eventing night 1, and Omega competing in the U.S. title tournament over both nights, the cards drew over 5,000 combined in the small venue. The following year at the Cow Palace with Omega and Rhodes having their rematch over the IWGP title, they drew 6,333 in an arena that has held around 12,000 crowds for name brand WWE and WCW events; shows featuring Lesnar, Guerrero, Hogan, Piper, Sting, etc., all names well known to North American audiences. In contrast, we can all agree in North America that NJPW is much more niche and from reports suffered from poor marketing on top of it. This was in July 2018.
Two months later, following the year-long Cody-Omega feud, Bullet Club implosion and the excision of the Elite from the group, what would become the core of AEW brought together independent wrestlers and stars from ROH, NWA, Impact and NJPW to sellout the Sears Centre in Chicago. In all the event drew 11,263 with all key members in featured matches, notably Omega in the co-main event opposite Penta El Zero M.
So why are these numbers even relevant, and what’s the point? Right? Retrace the steps above. Year over year, Omega was involved in a key featured match at Wrestle Kingdom where attendance increased. With NJPW’s major foray into the U.S. where Omega claimed the U.S. Championship as a baseline, their event nearly tripled the company’s single show attendance with Omega in the main event as IWGP Champion. And further, he was in the co-main event at All-In. Finally to cap this off, in Omega’s final NJPW match against Hiroshi Tanahashi the event’s paid attendance increased by just over 3,000 from 2018’s event marker.
Essentially, where Kenny Omega main events, attendance increases. For direct contrast though, look no further than NJPW’s next U.S. event that was attached to its flagship G1 tournament, which drew 4,846 in Dallas; down from the previous event headlined by Omega in the United States.
We need to bring attention to some key numbers outside of PPV buyrates, which all fall roughly in the same ranges. Before we move to “dessert,” let’s take a look at some key numbers from AEW Dark.
Yes, a YouTube show.
There’s very little to draw upon here, aside from a few small bits of information related to lifetime traffic and impressions. And even in some cases the ultimate point is slightly scuffed by an anomaly (episode 8). However, looking at the episodes in which Omega appeared, a trend emerges.
Omega’s first appearance on Dark was episode 2 against Joey Janela in a Lights Out match. This episode, although you can easily argue it benefitted from the debut, has amassed 1.3 million views (33K likes, 832 dislikes). Surrounding it is the debut episode which also drew 1.3 million views (36K likes, 872 dislikes), and the third episode which drew 887,000 pairs of eyes (21K likes, 729 dislikes).
Omega’s next appearance has only drawn 334,000 viewers, however it was also posted to YouTube on Nov. 30, 2019 (a Saturday) during U.S. Thanksgiving week, sandwiched between two weeks that did above 500-600K respectively, which became the top end of the weekly ranges. His next appearance on episode 10 drew 582K, and aside from the year-in-review episode, no other Dark episode amassed more viewers throughout until his last appearances — episodes 17 and 18. Preceding those episodes viewers dropped to 286K, rising to 314K and 392K respectively. Looking at the two episodes that followed, by episode 20 it dropped again to 316,000.
There are circumstantial exceptions, but generally what the Dark viewership numbers show us is that more often than not fans will go out of their way to log on to YouTube to watch a Dark episode featuring a Kenny Omega match, and that typically as viewer numbers have plateaued around 500K, Omega tends to spike the numbers of the previous week, with the following week’s dropping.
Looking over toward Dynamite, without diving even further into the statistical rabbit hole, it’s notable that the first week of head-to-head competition that NXT “won” was an episode without Omega (who was on Dark that week), a trend which continued the following week as WWE was still buzzing from its Survivor Series angles. Going forward from here is roughly when Omega and Hangman Page started teaming routinely. And while AEW’s complete success can’t fully be attributed to Omega alone, given he’s appeared on the majority of Dynamite episodes in 2020, running parallel to Dark’s trend and the show’s success nearly every week, it stands to reason Omega’s presence on the show holds viewers. Even last week up against Halloween Havoc with a taped show where results leaked, the NXT main event of Io Shirai and Candace LeRae only beat Omega and Penta by 32K viewers in that quarter hour.
This breakdown isn’t to serve the purpose of saying AEW and Kenny Omega are better necessarily than NXT, because were that the case AEW would sweep the competition on Wednesdays every week and that isn’t the case. Wrestling is wrestling, in the end. What’s more critical to the “war” is the total viewership number each week, which combined, increased from the previous week; more importantly, in service to this entire argument, and to bring this section to a close is the simple reality that two weeks ago Dynamite drew 753,000 viewers. Last week, with Kenny Omega in the main event they drew 781,000.
Omega Becomes the Alpha
Kenny Omega. The Cleaner. The Best Bout Machine…whatever you’d like to call him, is a draw in AEW. And moreover, he’s their alpha and their ace-in-the-hole. The numbers at least indicate he affects how fans choose to interact with the AEW product. Yet, for the last year the Omega that took NJPW and the world by storm has been on the sidelines simply playing his part. The man who effortlessly wrestled Okada 4 times for a combined 194 minutes — in matches that should go down in wrestling history as benchmarks for the future generation of professional wrestling to aspire to in terms of psychology, storytelling, raw technical ability and pure athleticism — has been a shadow.
But as much as they’ve been what’s made Omega’s ascension towards being one of the best in the world — if not the best — they have been dually an albatross around his neck in concert with Dave Meltzer’s antiquated star ratings. So for as good as his matches with Okada, Cody, Tanahashi, Jericho, Ishii, White, Naito or Balor were in NJPW, or his matches in the AEW tag division, or with Mox, PAC and Jericho once again, the perception is that he has not lived up to the hype that preceded his coming full-time to the United States. And that’s a fair assumption, because for the most part we haven’t truly seen that guy who fought Okada for 194 minutes across 4 matches. We haven’t seen the Best Bout Machine that broke Dave Meltzer’s brain. We haven’t seen the guy, until recently, who cleans out divisions with a scowl and more arrogance than a Cody Rhodes heel run.
Considering these questions we now ask about him: Is he the same guy he was 3 years ago? Even two years ago? Can he deliver an 8-star match without Okada by his side? Even another 6-star match? Five? Can he still physically compete at the same level? And on the backs of several key defeats in AEW to Jericho and Mox, in addition to a feud with PAC, the narrative shifted towards Omega being in the background working alongside Hangman Page to defend the AEW tag team championships. During that period we saw flashes of past brilliance, but nothing in the realm of his global reputation, nothing completely worthy of the spotlight in and of itself. That’s been the point. The questions then shift: Is this part of his story?
The saying goes that the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing you that he doesn’t exist, and while Kenny Omega is certainly no demon in the classic sense, the reality is for the last several years Omega and his partners have upped the ante on what’s possible inside the ring, breaking their own limits within how they view professional wrestling as though they were possessed. That encompasses what is physically possible as much as it does what’s creatively possible.
And so for the last year, while we’ve watched him week to week and seen him work as a tag team wrestler, the entire arc has played into the perception that he isn’t the same wrestler, or that he’s holding back and flying in the face of being true to himself. That in and of itself is the story, one that in this case further builds on the Page-Omega story dating back to 2017 when Omega lost the IWGP U.S. championship and he stood in the way of Page’s challenge to new champion Jay White; it’s a story that after a year of teaming together comes full circle with Page seeking his own glory while Omega obsessively locks his sights on his own aspirations.
This weekend at Full Gear Omega and Page go head to head for the right to compete for the AEW title currently held by Jon Moxley. It’s also AEW’s Judgment Day. Regardless of the outcome, which can go a number of ways, the end result will likely be Omega and Moxley going head to head at Revolution for the AEW world championship. Like a slow rolling boil, a version of Omega’s “Cleaner” persona has slowly taken over. It was evident in the match and character execution opposite Sonny Kiss, as well as during his match with Penta last week. And it’s something that will again rise on Saturday as Page and Omega’s story comes to a head.
That act of the story, however it plays out, is just one piece of the larger narrative puzzle that’s been told since AEW’s infancy. What seems forgone and concluded at this point, as much as the numbers show it, is that Kenny Omega is the main event “card” AEW needs to play and must play to truly make a mark and reshape wrestling.
The narratives we direct or subscribe to about Omega definitely have their genesis in reality, but the wrinkle in that fabric is it’s rooted in our perception of what we’re watching; and if what we’re watching is a piece of what Omega is willing to show us, then we don’t see the full story being crafted. In effect, we’re being worked into believing Omega’s prime has expired. When in truth, AEW’s salvation may be on the horizon in 2021 with the second coming of Kenny Omega.