In January, when news broke that four wrestlers – including top stars A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura – would be leaving New Japan Pro-Wrestling, many wondered how the promotion could possibly replace them. Would longtime stars Okada and Tanahashi fill the void, or would NJPW turn to someone new to shoulder the load? So far, it’s been the latter – and that someone new is Kenny Omega.
Omega, of course, isn’t new at all; a 15-year veteran of North America and Japan, he’s worked for companies like Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Jersey All Pro Wrestling and even spent time in WWE’s developmental system at Deep South Wrestling. But Omega truly came into his own with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, where he joined the iconic Bullet Club, became a mainstay in the Junior Heavyweight division and put on fantastic matches with the likes of Ryusuke Taguchi and Kushida.
But when A.J. Styles, fellow Bullet Club members Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows and Shinsuke Nakamura left, Omega seized the spotlight. The day after Wrestle Kingdom 10, Omega – along with the Young Bucks – attacked Styles, putting Omega at the head of the Bullet Club. He also declared that he was going after Nakamura’s vacated Intercontinental title, which he would later win by beating Tanahashi, the longtime face of New Japan. Since then, he and the Young Bucks, now known as “The Elite,” also won the NEVER Openweight 6-Man tag titles. Simply put, 2016 has been the year of Kenny Omega.
And from the sound of things, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down any time soon. Just after retuning from Japan, Rolling Stone spoke to the man known as “the Cleaner” about his incredible rise, putting the Bullet Club to bed and his latest targets – Xavier Woods and the New Day.
So, what have the past two months been like for you?
I don’t want to sound clichéd, but it has been a roller-coaster ride. We, as in myself and the Young Bucks, always get together before the big shows and grab a bite to eat, and this news hit that our friends and co-workers were suddenly leaving the company. It was going to pretty much change the entire of face of New Japan Pro-Wrestling going forward. I had been stuck in the junior division, and I had been wanting more than that since I had joined NJPW. Suddenly, here was an opportunity not only to seize that, but to have a little bit more say in everything. For the longest time, there was a hierarchy. They were taking the advice from the top guys, and had been doing a real old-guard style of booking. I thought maybe with all these guys leaving, they would be open to new ideas. The Young Bucks and myself are always full of ideas. So even though it was sad that our friends were leaving, we looked at it as a great opportunity to make 2016 our year.
But you didn’t hear anything official about the departures until the news broke?
I had heard some rumors on my last match of 2015. It was in America, and the Bucks and I were doing a show for a [now-defunct] promotion called 2CW. They had said, “Hey, we just heard a rumor that there’s a possibility that the guys are leaving.” I didn’t want to regard it right away, because there’s always rumors…it was kind of shocking to us that we didn’t hear it from the horse’s mouth. We had suspected there was something going on, then when we arrived in Tokyo after the New Year, everything was confirmed. We just became flies on the wall, watching everything go crazy all around us. Even though we had prepared ourselves for it, there was no way that the Japanese office was prepared for it. It was a sight to behold. Everyone was panicking, and they were trying to make the best of a bad situation.
What was the locker room and front office like at that point?
Before the Tokyo Dome show, which is basically our WrestleMania, we have to do a lot of PR work. There’s a lot of press conferences, we have to face the public, there are meet and greets. So we’re always all around each other, at all hours of the day. Not only are we doing our part, but the staff, the guys in the office, the guys working behind the scenes, they’re all around us too. We were able to see a myriad of emotions. Some people were angry, some people were sad, some looked like they were going to cry. Everyone deals with grief in their own way, and I think I saw almost all of it.
At that point it hadn’t set in for me, because I was just trying to figure out ways to turn this huge negative into a positive. We’re watching it all erupt in front of us, and we were just trying to analyze how to turn this around. We’re figuring out how they are going to fill the gap. Gallows and Anderson, they were the foreign heavyweight tag team. How were they going to fill that void? A.J. Styles is one of the best in the world, how are they going to fill that void? And how are we going to make that transition? The Bucks and I were in a proverbial think tank at all times, to the point where we weren’t really even focusing on our matches at the biggest show of the year. We were constantly focusing on how we were going to deal with this fallout.
It seems like when the dust settled, you benefitted the most from those departures. You were chosen to fill A.J.’s role as the top guy in the Bullet Club. You’re chosen to follow Nakamura as IC champion. How did it feel to become the man?
The booker came to me and he said, “You know what Kenny? I don’t think you’re going to challenge for the Junior Heavyweight title anymore, I think we have to put you in A.J.’s old spot.” Normally I’m a fairly shy guy, not timid, but I would just say OK about decisions, and then I’d worry about them. This time though, my initial thought process was, “Finally.” I had always wanted a top spot, ever since I came to Japan in 2008. I had thought that I was going to get that spot when I had joined New Japan, and then A.J. came. I got shifted back again then. So even though I love A.J., and understand completely why he would get that spot, that’s where I really wanted to be. I didn’t want to try to fill A.J.’s spot by being another A.J. though, or by being another Prince Devitt or Finn Bálor. I wanted to be Kenny Omega, and show people that I’m a star. With the Bucks supporting me, the first two months of me being in that position have been a breeze, and a real fun ride.
Before this, had you started to sour on New Japan at all, or at least wonder if you should go elsewhere?
It’s funny that you mention that. As time went by, a little promotion called NXT was building their ranks, and slowly but surely they had built the strongest roster of any promotion on the planet. The reason I wanted to be part of New Japan at first was because I truly felt they had the best wrestling on the planet. Not only that, but they were willing to put money into it to try to go worldwide, and try to get their voices heard. They wanted to show that they were the King of Sports. They wanted their matches to be 15, 20, 30 minutes long. They didn’t want quick 5-7 minute matches. While I’m still capable, I wanted to show an athletic, entertaining style with New Japan. Eventually, I think everyone sees themselves in WWE, and sees themselves doing the entertainment thing. But at this point in time, I wanted to show the best of both worlds, the strong style with the North American entertainment stuff, which I also love.
Almost everyone works on one-year contracts in New Japan. As that time approached, I found myself wondering how much more I could prove by doing these 12-minute junior matches on the undercard. If I had to do another year of not feeling like I was contributing something positive, I really felt like maybe I should go somewhere else where I could contribute, not just for a company, but for pro wrestling as a whole. I was heavily considering going to NXT. There have been continuous efforts on WWE’s part over the past couple years to have me return there. So I considered it, until an opportunity arose to step into that spotlight in Japan and be the guy.
What’s been the biggest change to your mindset?
It really revitalized me creatively. It revitalized my mind and my spirit for what wrestling can be. We’re living in this world where anything can happen. For someone to hand me the ball and say, “You’re the guy,” I can now make so many situations out of my crazy little mind actually happen. I have a great cast and crew of characters to help me orchestrate these works of art, at least in my mind, and really show something unique and original and cool and funny. I really don’t think that I would have quite that amount of freedom if I went somewhere else. The Bucks and I still have something special that we want to share with the world. When you are in WWE, you’re really strapped down by their rules and writing. We like the creative freedom of being on the indies and in Japan, and anywhere but there. If you’ve seen our matches, or our social media, that’s really us. Nobody is writing that for us.
Speaking of that, it really seems like the antics between you and the Bucks have really gone into overdrive in recent months, especially on social media. Is that the new Bullet Club policy?
For a while now we’ve joked around that we should form this unit called The Elite. It was a joke at first, because we had always thought that we shared the same brain. We had the same thoughts about what a wrestling match should be. And now, it’s pretty much just the three of us in this elite group of people. So we thought, “Now that the Bullet Club isn’t so much the Bullet Club anymore, maybe it’s time to just call ourselves that. Let’s go full-bore with The Elite.” We wanted to be together constantly, in the ring, and out. One of the coolest things about the world of wrestling is that sometimes the dumbest things can still be tethered back to the wrestling world. We made videos that had absolutely nothing to do with falling or submissions or running off the ropes. We made videos, like the stuff where I was naked with my belt on, and the Bucks were hiding underneath my bed, and they’re so very loosely tied to wrestling. But it’s still wrestling. This is the stuff that we like to do. Even when there isn’t a big show or a match, we love making content for the public. We want to always give the people something. Someone may actually want to put a lid on it soon, because we’re getting way out of control with them, but until that day comes, you’re probably going to see many more ridiculous videos turn up on social media.
Do you see The Elite completely replacing the Bullet Club, or is The Elite more of an extension of the Bullet Club?
The Bullet Club has sort of become this pop-culture phenomenon. You don’t even have to like wrestling or follow our product, and you can wear a Bullet Club shirt and it’s cool. I can understand how New Japan wants to keep up with that. That’s their cash cow. If we are still the Bullet Club, in parentheses, then I’m OK with that. But I want everyone to know that myself, Nick and Matt Jackson are The Elite. I want to push that hard, especially this year. There’s a place you can go to watch the most ridiculous and entertaining stuff in pro wrestling, and it’s The Elite. With the Bullet Club, we had all sorts of wrestlers come and go. Some were good, some were bad, some were god-awful. Now, there has to be more of a distinction of who is doing what. Which is why, in this transition period, the guys who are really keeping this thing afloat are The Elite.
— The Young Bucks (@NickJacksonYB) February 20, 2016
In a recent video, you weren’t staying just in the realm of New Japan, you also called out Xavier Woods and The New Day. What made you target them?
Woods and I have sort of had an online feud for quite some time. I had always been revered as the gaming wrestler. Out of nowhere, Woods appeared and now he has a YouTube channel. If I’m to be honest, I think that’s awesome, but there’s grounds for a rivalry there. I’m the gaming guy from Japan that’s a heel. He’s the gaming guy from America and he’s appealing to a different crowd of people. We have that mutual connection of loving fighting games though, specifically Street Fighter. So we just had to ramp it up and change gears a bit by actually filming videos together. Fans really enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. We are hoping for it to come to a head and have an actual grudge match by playing the latest Street Fighter.
In a perfect world, we’re not just going to play video games against each other; we’re going to try to have a match. Or at least myself and the Young Bucks are pushing for it. We really meant it when we said, “Our [NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship] belts don’t have any borders, and neither do we.” If there’s a possibility of this match happening, we will do whatever it takes to make it happen. It can only benefit wrestling as a whole. I know WWE always thinks of dollars and cents and how their guys look in the public eye. I can understand that. I think that in this situation, everyone wins. We got the people talking – the match may never happen, but people are talking. They’re talking about a better world when companies aren’t at each other’s throats, and people don’t have heat with each other. This is the kind of thing that The Elite are trying to do. Even though we have no corporate power, we’re just throwing ourselves out there, and saying we want it to happen. The fans want it to happen. And if the fans want it to happen, who’s to say that it shouldn’t? We’re going to look to create situations like this all the time, all over the place.
Anything you want to say to The New Day right now?
I don’t just want to challenge The New Day. I want to challenge WWE. I know there are some people in the back that think that having outsiders come in and challenge your top act would just be a huge faux pas. I can understand that. But the three guys are that are challenging your most entertaining three guys are the three guys that have literally taken over the Internet. When those two forces come together, it would blow up like a hydrogen bomb. Look, WWE, you claim to be the masters of sports entertainment. How about this? Entertain the people. Cater to everyone on the planet. Myself and the Bucks, we are the Internet darlings of wrestling. We are racking up all the Match of the Year contenders. We are the ones on top of the planet right now. We are extending the olive branch for you guys to do something that has never been done before, and to help pro wrestling as a whole. The Young Bucks and I are willing to make it happen on our soil, on your soil, on your terms, it doesn’t matter. We are doing this for the people. Not your people, not our people, but all the people.
Moving from WWE to another company, you’re making your big return to Ring of Honor this weekend at their 14th Anniversary Show. It’s your first time working with ROH since 2010. How does that feel?
It feels so weird. I hadn’t left there on the greatest terms. Even though the locker room has changed, a lot of the same faces are still there. To walk back into their locker room that I had left in 2010, I’m more nervous about returning to ROH than anything we had talked about before. Just going back to Ring of Honor is a really nerve-racking thing. I hope I can have a good match for the fans. Every promotion has different fans with different tastes. I hope they dig what I bring to the table. As usual I’ll try my best, and I’ll be with the Bucks. So what we’re going to bring is something truly unique, and something that I don’t think they’ve even seen in Ring of Honor yet. Hopefully we’ll blow the roof off the place.
Why has it been so long since you’ve worked with ROH?
I had started to take a full-time schedule in Japan at the time. I was trying to balance multiple schedules then. I was trying to work with Ring of Honor and still take bookings in America while working a double schedule in Japan. I was working with DDT in Japan and had crossed over as a lender to New Japan, and was holding their Junior tag belts. Trying to balance four schedules was very difficult. As it so happened, at the end of December, I had hurt my ankle in Japan. I had come home to do my physio, and at that time, the papers in Japan had announced that I had won Match of the Year, and they were hoping that I could come back to accept the award. It was a really prestigious event. They really hoped that the people could be there to accept. My ankle had started to feel better, but when I flew out there, it swelled up again, like a watermelon. There was absolutely no way I could fly back the next day to compete at Final Battle.
What I planned to do was take a picture of my foot, and show it to one of the bookers, just so he knew I wasn’t faking. So I took a picture of my ankle, and thought it looked so gross, like I had gangrene or something. So I thought as a funny joke, I’d send a picture of a severed foot instead. So I sent it to him, with a message saying my foot had gotten worse and I couldn’t do the show. That was serious. But the picture blew it out of proportion. I guess I hadn’t had that relationship where we could joke like that yet. He didn’t find it funny. So there’s been heat from that email and me canceling on that show for years. Finally we ran into each other in Japan and we buried the hatchet.
What do you think of the Ring of Honor/New Japan partnership, and how big do you think it can get?
It really depends how much both companies want to grow. New Japan has made it very clear that they want to become more worldwide. They’ve added English commentary to their biggest shows. They’ve sent talent to America, to Mexico, all over the world. We have New Japan World, so anyone can see our events. For ROH to be a mutual partner, they have to make the same effort. They have to look just as professional as New Japan, they have to have the same goals to be a worldwide company. They shouldn’t just want to be the top independent in America, but to extend the balance and be viewed as more as a true major. They recently did the Honor Rising shows in Japan, which were awesome, and a great first step. I’ve seen that they’ve done renovation on their entrances, and it looks fantastic. Little touch-ups like that really change the game, and makes it look like they’re in it to be a contender.
It’s easy when you’re on top – WWE is so firmly in the Number One position that they don’t have to try as hard. For New Japan or Ring of Honor to make headlines, they have to do something mind-blowing. And then when you do something mind-blowing, it has to look professional. So it’s about every aspect, from the guys in the ring to the guys backstage. That way when we have these killer 5-star matches, the presentation looks no different from what WWE gives you. This year will be a real way to tell. We have to step up in all areas. So far, so good though.
So with a crazy first two months of 2016 already in the books, what do you see happening for the rest of the year?
Considering that I didn’t see myself being anywhere near where I’m standing now, it shows that there isn’t any limit as to what could happen this year. Not just in wrestling, but in all avenues. I’m planning on branching out in video games, I’m even planning on competing professionally in Street Fighter V, and I’m going to be competing in the big CEO event in Orlando. As far as wrestling goes, who’s to say what’s going to happen? Who’s to say that I won’t get in a WWE ring with The New Day at some point? Who’s to say that I’m not going to main event at the next Wrestle Kingdom? The impossible has already happened. I’ve learned my lesson. Things change within a heartbeat. Right now, considering that New Japan has given myself and the Bucks the ball and let us run with it, there’s no ceiling placed above our heads anymore. We can take this thing as far as we want to go, so I don’t want to place any limit on us. We want to change the entire business this year if we can.