At New Japan Pro Wrestling’s New Beginning in Sapporo, something very rare in the wrestling business happened – a long-term, well-executed, nuanced storyline began to actually pay off. Kenny Omega lost the US Title (he was the first person to win the title and dubbed it “Red Sonja”) to Switchblade Jay White. White, a relative newcomer to NJPW’s scene was an underdog to say the least in this match up. Not only did he defeat the “Wrestling God,” the “Best Bout Machine” with no cheating or interference, but his prediction that Kenny’s dominance over the Bullet Club would come crumbling down as a result came true. It all happened exactly as he predicted and then some. Cody drove the wedge in the BC and Jay White struck a divisive blow. What Jay White didn’t predict was Kota Ibushi coming out to save Kenny Omega and (apparently) Omega and Ibushi reuniting.
At face value this seems like nothing special, but to understand the significance of this moment you have to go back nearly a decade. In 2009, Omega and Ibushi were building up DDT (a promotion smaller than NJPW) from relative obscurity. Their bizarre matches and amazing athleticism helped put that promotion on the map and their team, “The Golden Lovers” became a sensation that helped get them some notoriety in New Japan. Both Ibushi and Omega started to become regulars there by 2010 getting some Jr Heavyweight Tag matches and participating in the Best of the Super Juniors. They eventually won the Jr Tag Belts from Devitt (who would become the first leader of the BC) and Taguchi. In 2013 Omega and Devitt had a match for the title that Omega lost, largely due to severe and violent interference from members of the Bullet Club who mercilessly beat Omega every chance they got.
Omega, prior to this was a generally happy, wacky, light-hearted (but still athletically extremely gifted) character who just loved being with his more mysterious and silent buddy, Kota Ibushi. His persona was that of a fun, if bizarre, superior wrestler.
That all changed in October of 2014. Omega is officially signed to New Japan and aligns himself with the Bullet Club. Gone is the fun-loving, blonde-haired, pastel-tights wearing dynamo he was before. This new Omega was “The Cleaner.” A serious hitman-type character brought in to “clean up” the Junior Heavyweight division. He was more serious and violent than before and took full advantage of the BC’s interference during his matches. Beatdowns, cheatery, low-blows, cold sprays – this Kenny Omega was about one thing: collecting titles. He wins the Junior Heavyweight title at WrestleKingdom 9 and his star begins to rise.
At this same time his former partner, Ibushi, is quietly starting to make waves in New Japan as well. He gets a title shot at Invasion/Attack 2015 against the Bullet Club leader at that time – AJ Styles. Being a part of the Bullet Club meant cheating to help your BC-brothers win a match, but Omega hesitates when he has a chance to knock Ibushi off the top rope during the match and Ibushi seems disappointed in his former friend. At first glance this is because he tried to interfere, but in retrospect it seems clear that Ibushi was disappointed at the man Omega was becoming.
Shortly after this match Kenny Omega stages a coup, kicking AJ Styles out of the Bullet Club and declaring himself the leader. His ego is beginning to inflate with this move and in 2016 he defeats Tanahashi to win the Intercontinental title at New Beginning 2016. If his star was on the rise before, he gets shot into the stratosphere after he takes over the BC.
He forms “the Elite” with the Young Bucks and become a dominant force all over the wrestling world. He becomes the first non-Japanese wrestler ever to win the G1 (after which Ibushi and him cross paths, but Kenny has a hard time facing his former partner – even at the highest point in his career at that time).
He has matches with Okada that put him on the map as arguably the greatest living wrestler in the world. He is the best bout machine and is becoming the wrestling god. All this praise, all this success is beginning to go to his head. Omega’s disregard for the Bullet Club at large begins to become apparent as he focuses more on himself and his ascension to wrestling god-hood. Bullet Club members Tama Tonga and Cody see this attitude and take umbrage with it, but don’t have the sway to really do anything about it. Cody is instructed by Omega to not challenge Ibushi at WK, but Cody does so anyway.
In 2017 he wins a tournament to become the first-ever NJPW United States champion. The “Red Sonja” (as he dubs it) is his for eight months. Omega fully immerses himself in his created persona as the wrestling god. He begins to look down at his opponents, mocking them during matches and generally acting as if they are beneath him; he is also noticeably absent from most Bullet Club matches, only working with the Young Bucks. In promos he even half-jokingly says that this is all about him – and the Bullet Club a little bit.
Omega’s hubris begins to make him blind to the problems in the BC. He tries to recruit Jay White in hopes of smoothing things over with new blood, but White not only rejects the offer but challenges Omega for the US Title. Simultaneously, Cody has become a defacto leader of the Bullet Club (participating in more multi-man matches, actively creating strategies for the Club to win, etc) as Omega focuses only on himself. Jay White makes the claim that the Bullet Club is weak under Omega because no one will step up to him and challenge for the US Title and that once White defeats Omega, the BC will implode. Most view this as bluster from a young wrestler who wants to make a name for himself, but after the events of New Beginning in Sapporo, his words seem eerily prophetic. At New Beginning Night 1, Cody attempts to hit Kota Ibushi with a steel chair in a post-match beat down, but Omega interferes – causing even more dissension amongst the Club. Omega won’t befriend Ibushi outright, but he also won’t allow any harm to come to him. In fact, the only time Omega really lowers himself to dealing with BC business is when Ibushi is involved.
Kenny Omega at this point in his career was a completely different person than he was when he first entered NJPW. Now with a massive ego and no shortage of malice and derision for his opponents, he looks down on everyone around him (including his BC brethren). He’s so convinced of his own superiority that he doesn’t take his match with Jay White as seriously as he should have and ultimately loses his US Title – the title he basically put on the map and was the first recipient of – to some returning Young Lion fresh off his excursion. He basically lost to a rookie. Omega is a notoriously bad winner who mocks his opponents afterwards, but he is completely unable to handle the loss to a young wrestler like White.
Fellow Bullet Club member Adam Page comes out to challenge Jay White for his newly won US Title and Omega orders him to stand down, wanting his own rematch first. Cody runs out to stand up for Page and tell Omega that he lost and to just get over it. Everything becomes chaotic and when an injured Matt Jackson attempts to hold Omega back, Omega reacts by shoving him to the ground. The Bucks, dejected, leave the ring and say they can’t deal with this right now. Marty Scurll attempts to keep the peace. Cody and Omega appear to make amends, but as Omega is leaving the ring, Cody hits him with the CrossRhodes and just as him and Hangman Page about to destroy him with a steel chair, Ibushi runs out to chase them off. This is where things get tense – Omega seems very reluctant to accept Ibushi’s handshake, but when he finally does – it ends up being a very strong style hug between the Golden Lovers.
This is quite the timeline and an example of really well thought-out long-form storytelling that only wrestling can do.
To succeed in NJPW, Omega saw that you have to become a cocky, cheating, egotistical force to be reckoned with – as shown by Prince Devitt and AJ Styles. Devitt showed Kenny that to succeed you have to be ruthless and usurping AJ’s power drove that home. He became a different person; he transformed himself into “the Cleaner” or “a Wrestling God” in order climb the ranks of NJPW, ultimately sacrificing his true self to get there. The only thing holding him back was his connection to Kota Ibushi and their shared past. Every time they crossed paths, Omega appeared conflicted or frustrated because Ibushi reminded him of what he gave up to try and win these titles. That very thing he gave up – his compassion, his humanity, his warmth – brought him almost to the top, but then sent him crashing back down to the bottom: no title, no friends, no club and losing against a competitor that no one believed could touch the wrestling god himself. At New Beginning when he had lost it all, Ibushi was there extending a hand of friendship. Now that Omega has accepted Ibushi again, will we see a more humble Kenny Omega? A person who understands that being selfish and egotistical will eventually be your own ruin?
Interestingly enough, Cody and Tama were right the whole time. They saw Kenny as the selfish leader that he was becoming, but couldn’t do anything about it because even if they were right about Kenny, making him understand the error of his ways is a different matter altogether (and not their forte at all). Mere mortals humbling a wrestling god? Not an easy task. In then end it was someone very much like The Cleaner that dethroned Omega. Switchblade’s ruthlessness and cold-blooded nature are very similar to Omega as the Cleaner and throughout their match it was easy to see that White knew Omega was underestimating to his own downfall.
In a recent interview following New Beginning, Omega himself commented on this and definitely hinted that who he was with the BC wasn’t true to his real self and Ibushi helped bring that back out:
“When he came to help me, I had a flashback to our time as Golden Lovers. Ibushi’s always been kind of hard to figure out, but I kind of understood something. The real Kenny is always at Kota’s side.
I said I wanted to face him (in the G1 final) but the truth is what I wanted was to stand in the right with him. I didn’t go to WWE because I was waiting for him. If we aren’t together, there’s no point. I want us to change the world together. I took belts with the BC, did a lot, but that was all the job. Golden Lovers transcend wrestling.”
Throughout the evolution of Omega from Golden Lover Kenny to The Cleaner to Bullet Club Leader to Wrestling God, Ibushi has always been there – watching as his friend transformed into something unrecognizable to what he once was and hoping to bring him back with his own quiet resolve.
Cody was right in another way too. By drawing Ibushi into Kenny’s life again with these Bullet Club beatdowns, it forced Kenny to reconcile who he is with who he was and ultimately bring Ibushi and Omega back together again.
What the future holds for the Bullet Club, Omega and Ibushi is up in the air but for anyone who enjoys amazing storytelling in their pro wrestling – New Japan is executing on an amazing level right now.
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