Few wrestlers can say they had a year on par with Kenny Omega. After usurping control of the Bullet Club from AJ Styles, Omega went on a warpath through New Japan Pro Wrestling, doing everything from instigating ladder matches in NJPW to winning the prestigous G1 Climax tournament. As 2016’s G1 winner, he now has a date with destiny at Wrestle Kingdom 11, where he’ll do battle with Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. We were lucky enough to speak to Omega about his whirlwind year, and what could possibly come next.
Looking back on your career, was there any point where you saw yourself headlining the Tokyo Dome for New Japan Pro Wrestling?
No, I never did, and that’s just me being honest. I always had big dreams, sort of fantasy scenarios. “Wouldn’t it be nice if … ?” But given the stance of the Bullet Club members last year, we had a very clear heavyweight leader in AJ Styles. We had a dominant tag team in the heavyweight division with Machine Gun [Karl Anderson] and [Luke] Gallows. Everyone had their specific roles, and I was the junior heavyweight guy. I’d sort of come to terms with forever being the Bullet Club junior guy, so what I wanted to do was make that the best run I could. I wanted to be the champ, but I wanted to be the best champ I could be, the best champ the company has seen. And you know, the junior heavyweight title match would probably never headline the Tokyo Dome main event, so if anything, I had just seen myself bringing respect back to that division so it could be seen on the same level as some of the heavyweight titles.
Would it be fair to say that people in your past, even former colleagues, thought you would never reach this level of success?
Oh, definitely. There were people that had doubted me, and I don’t even mean fans of rival promotions or fans of New Japan … I mean people that I work with. There’s always going to be a mixture of professional jealousy and varying opinions. I have a very different opinion of what I think is and should be. Other people have a different opinion of it, saying it should be more traditional … rinse, wash, repeat, make it look like a fight, pack your bags, go home. For me, I always saw wrestling as a clean slate, where it could be anything you wanted it to be. We exist within a realm where it’s a sport. It’s supposed to be a fight, but guess what? It’s entertainment.
… Take Bloodsport, one of my favorite movies of all time … If every movie that followed tried to be the next Bloodsport because that’s just what fighting is, two guys fighting in a tournament or for some kind of championship, you could tweak it … Sometimes you’re fighting in a cage, sometimes you’re fighting on top of a building or whatever.
But eventually, people are going to want more from the genre. This is where the leniency and creativity of the stuff that I do comes in. I want to push the boundaries. We wrestle in a ring, and we are working together as a company to be bigger and better, but there are so many things around us that we can use, so many things that can happen in a fight in the wrestling world … We can, as wrestlers, make things more entertaining than what you normally see. I just want to be the guy who brings that at an elite level.
Your opponent at Wrestle Kingdom is the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada. What is your impression of him, and what’s your strategy going into the match?
I mean, he’s the champ, right? He’s been quite the dominant champ, and I don’t think that’s misplaced faith by our company. I think it speaks volumes to the type of wrestler he is. He’s helped protect the current popularity of the company, and he’s slowly moving it forward in Japan. Young, good-looking guy, great athlete, cool entrance music, cool-looking costume, good moves, what more can I say? I can’t really say anything negative about him, which is why I’m excited to have the main event against him.
Sometimes I’m put in a situation where I feel like I have to draw blood from a stone, you know what I mean? But this is a situation where I’ve got a guy that’s also very talented and very athletic, which is cool. I think we’ll be able to not only show something new and unique, but also show the people that want to see traditional wrestling … If they’re looking for an athletic contest, they’re going to get that too.
We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of you taking control of the Bullet Club. What does the Bullet Club mean to you?
Things really changed over the past year. We used to be just a group of buddies that would just enjoy our time together and make wrestling a more fun work environment. Now, it still is that … We’re still just a group of rowdy guys who do what we want to do when we want to do it, but we’ve actually been a lot more committed to the work end of it.
We know that we lost huge parts of what made Bullet Club whole. Not all of our members are present. When AJ, Gallows, Gun, and even way back when Finn Balor left, people were starting to feel like maybe it wasn’t even Bullet Club anymore. When things like that happen, when your ranks have been damaged a little bit, you can’t just continue to party. It’s not party time anymore. It’s time to crack down and think more about business. So actually, as a group, we’ve been trying to improve as wrestlers and athletes. We’ve been trying to bring more new ideas to the table, just to be better as a whole and to offer more to the product. Personally, I’ve gone far beyond where I thought I’d be after a year.
Of course, it cost a lot of my time and a lot of my health, mentally and physically. I’ve really paid with blood, sweat, tears, my soul … And that was all to make sure that we didn’t look weak anymore. Tama Tonga and his brother, Tanga Loa? They weren’t really in a position to be anything, they were just two dudes! And now, they’re one of the most dominating tag teams in all of New Japan, and they’re getting better as days go by. The Young Bucks, guys that could easily just be junior heavyweights anywhere else on the planet, are main event superstars.
We’re trying to do things where Bullet Club is still the center focus of attention, even though things always go full circle. The nWo had to die. D-Generation X had to die. We’re not through yet. And I think as long as we keep seeing these successes and we keep doing things people never thought we could do, I think the Bullet Club name will continue to grow and we’ll have completely recovered from the losses we had in earlier years.
And you’ll be adding Cody Rhodes to the Bullet Club at Wrestle Kingdom as well! Have you been communicating with him?
It’s strange, we’ve been communicating and we’ve been really friendly with each other, but we’ve never actually met before in person. It’s cool to go into this thing with the same ideas. “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I know what you’re about and I like the cut of your jib, so let’s make this thing work.” Even when you don’t know a person but you hear about their dedication, it gets you excited to work with them.
Cody is a lot like Okada, in a sense. He’s a young, athletic, good-looking guy, and the sky is always going to be the limit for guys like that. So, I just want to make sure that Cody gets off to a great start in New Japan. The fans haven’t been properly introduced to him yet. They’ve seen a cool video package, but they’re going to see him in the flesh at the Tokyo Dome. It’s a little bit of pressure, kind of going from the frying pan to the fire right off the bat, but Cody’s a pro. He’s wrestled everywhere, he’s done the big arenas before, he knows how to handle the crowd. I expect nothing but good things and big things from Cody in 2017.
When I talked with Beretta recently, he had this to say about you: “I think Kenny is unreal. He’s the first foreigner to win the G1 Climax, which is huge. If New Japan is going to expand, he’s the guy to bring it to English-speaking countries.” How do you feel receiving that kind of praise from your peers?
Having respect from your peers is always the coolest thing. You never want to hear from guys that you work with that they hate working with you, or that you’re a dickhead. You try to balance it, know what I mean? You want to be someone the company can rely on, but you also want to be a man of the people as well. I’m trying, in my journey, to be that guy. I don’t want to lose sight of being someone that the people can relate to.
I think a lot of champions in the past, in New Japan especially … There comes a separation. Okada, he was just a TNA young boy. He got thrust into this main event situation, and suddenly he’s making millions of dollars, dressing all fancy, having a ton of interviews, sponsor meetings, photoshoots, commercials … There comes a clear separation. He’s too different from everyone else now. Even as a champion, I don’t want to lose that connection. Not just with the fans, but with the locker room as well.
If we can talk about the wrestling world at large, 2016 saw unprecedented cooperation between large companies and smaller independents with events like the Cruiserweight Classic and the recently announced United Kingdom Championship Tournament. Where do you think we’re going from here?
It seems as though we’re headed towards a monopoly, if I were to speak honestly. WWE is hiring people just to hire them. That’s fine, and I’m happy for whoever’s happy to collect a paycheck from them. A lot of my good friends are now receiving work and receiving money. But sadly, a lot of those people are signing with WWE just to ride the pine. You can’t put all these guys on TV. On one end, you have these mom-and-pop indy superstars getting TV time, and people all around the world are able to see the art of what they do. And in a lot of cases, they’re enjoying it, which is fantastic. I’m really happy about that.
But as everyone gets picked up, as all these independent promotions have to shut down and close their doors because of WWE scooping everyone up, everyone’s going to lose an option. And that guy you saw for that one tournament, you’re not going to see him anymore. You can’t put him on TV, there’s only so much time. So eventually, people are going to run out of options. I want to be one of the options for people. You want to go eat a McDonald’s hamburger? That’s cool. McDonald’s can be good. Do I like them every day? Do I want to eat McDonald’s seven days a week for every meal? Probably not. Eventually, I’m going to want to go someplace for a triple-A grade steak. I may not necessarily have the traffic flow of McDonald’s, but guess what? The quality is there, and it’s for the distinguished wrestling viewer. People who are wanting something more out of their programming. That’s what I want to provide for people in 2017.
For those who might be completely foreign to Wrestle Kingdom and/or New Japan Pro Wrestling, what can they expect when they tune in to Wrestle Kingdom 11?
I looked at the card, and from top to bottom, it is stacked. We’ve got a lot of great matches. Every title, I believe, is on the line! So there’s going to be no shortage of big-match feel. It’s our biggest show of the year, and all of our big, heavy hitters are going to be in attendance. I believe everyone is healthy, so they’re all going to be on their A-game. You’re going to see a great show, whether you want to see it with traditional Japanese commentary or English commentary. I think it’s going to be a fantastic spectacle, much like Wrestle Kingdom was last year. One of the best live shows of the year, I would say.